Tribute to the courtroom sketch artist

The moment, in Bill Robles' recollection, came in a flash. Charles Manson grew agitated during his 1970 murder trial and lunged at the judge, a uniformed official tackling him around the waist and averting further mayhem in the courtroom.

Within an hour, Robles, who covered the trial as a sketch artist, had finished a rendering of the lunge. As he recalled, the image led off Walter Cronkite's news program later that evening.

"You had to kind of freeze that moment and capture that image, and that's where your drawing ability comes in," Robles said.

This month at the Newport Beach Central Library, Robles' drawing ability — and that of two other courtroom artists — will get a tribute. "Courtroom Art," an exhibit featuring works by Robles, Elizabeth Williams and Aggie Kenny, opens Saturday and runs through March 5.

Among the images on display are sketches from the trials of Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Patty Hearst and others. The show comes shortly after the release of "The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art," a book co-compiled by Williams that features Robles' Manson illustration on the cover. Last spring, the World Trade Art Gallery in New York hosted a similar show based on the book.

The Newport Beach exhibit marks the material's West Coast debut, and it had a local advocate: Former KNBC TV reporter Susan Hahn, who lives in Newport Beach and worked for years alongside Williams covering trials, suggested the idea to library administrators. On March 3 at 7 p.m., Hahn will host "An Evening of Famous Trials in Pictures," a presentation on courtroom art with Kenny, Robles and Williams.

Looking at the courtroom sketches in the exhibit, Hahn remembers the incidents that spawned them. Just as much, though, she remembers the daily grind of trial coverage — hours of waiting in the hall outside the chamber for a newsworthy moment, and then the rush to capture it in text or pictures.

"It's the gift of keen observation," Hahn said. "A good writer can get a story down, but it's a great writer that observes the little nuances. And I think that's true with an artist as well."

Williams, who originally studied to be a fashion illustrator, took up courtroom art on a teacher's recommendation and got her first break from Robles, who recommended her to KNBC. In the years to come, she sketched the trials of Martha Stewart, Bernard Madoff and other high-profile figures.

Still, one of the cases that stands out most in her memory is her first. As Williams remembers, the defendant, an accused child molester, turned to her on his way into the lockup and said, "Do a good job, honey."

"The one after that, I have no idea," Williams said. "That one I will never, ever forget."

If You Go

What: "Courtroom Art"

Where: Newport Beach Central Library, 1000 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 2 through March 5

Cost: Free

Information: (949) 717-3800, Ext. 2, or http://www.newportbeachlibrary.org

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