Boise courtroom artist works where cameras aren’t allowed

Zella Strickland has spent more than 30 years sketching lawyers and defendants in Idaho federal courtrooms.

krodine@idahostatesman.comNovember 5, 2013 

If you see a cheerful, curly-haired woman with a gray tackle box heading through the corridors of Boise's federal courthouse, you haven't spotted a wayward angler. Instead, she's a practitioner of a less common pursuit: courtroom sketch artist.

Zella Strickland is well-known to attorneys, judges and those who've served on juries for some of the most high-profile trials of Idaho's past three decades. And many of the images she creates have provided television viewers in Idaho and beyond their only glimpse of the scene inside the courtrooms where the fates of defendants from Claude Dallas to Joseph Duncan were decided.

Using markers and watercolors in rooms where cameras are not allowed, Strickland has been capturing the drama in Idaho courtrooms since 1981, first for KBOI (Channel 2) and more recently for KTVB (Channel 7).

It's not her only artistic pursuit - her western-themed paintings have graced collections from Margaret Mead to Velma Morrison, and her cartoons adorn numerous greeting cards for Leanin' Tree - nor is it her most frequent. But she finds it fascinating.

"I love it, because you're not responsible for the outcome," Strickland says. "You get to hear things even the jury doesn't hear."

"What you learn is, it's kind of like politics: Neither side is telling you the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

LAWYERS LAUD HER

Many of the lawyers who have plied their trade in front of Strickland have purchased the artwork she made of them.

And the admiration she expresses for some attorneys is definitely mutual.

"I've always treasured the drawings that she created of me and the trials," says Boise attorney Chuck Peterson. In one of his first big Idaho cases, Peterson helped defend Randy Weaver against charges that he murdered a deputy U.S. marshal during a 1992 raid on the Weaver family's Ruby Ridge property in northern Idaho. Strickland sketched throughout Weaver's nine-week trial.

"I have two in my office, and I wish I had more," Peterson says.

He recalls the funeral of an Idaho attorney who had been drawn by Strickland: "Someone brought [that sketch] to his funeral. It was a great likeness of him."

Gus Cahill, Ada County's chief deputy public defender, refers to Strickland as "my dear friend Zella." He's been defending murder suspects and others in the Treasure Valley for 33 years, one year longer than Strickland's been drawing them.

"I'd tell her, 'Zella, I love the fact that you make me look like a human being instead of a beer can with a beak,' " Cahill says. He owns at least eight Strickland court sketches, plus nonjudicial examples of her art.

"I love her work. She has a wonderful sensibility," Cahill says. "I have in my bathroom a picture of a wolf and a sheep sitting together. She's good at painting animals."

Strickland is particularly proud of her paintings of horses, including one featuring pack trains on a narrow ledge that won a People's Choice Award in a Western Horseman magazine art show.

Cahill says it's more than talent that makes Strickland "beloved by everybody" she encounters in the courts.

"She was very unobtrusive in the way she did her business, unlike some media folk," he says. "She never tried to eavesdrop. She was not distractive. She was incredibly professional."

Strickland hasn't covered the state's district courts since those courts began allowing cameras in the courtroom. But she's still working in U.S. District Court, where the camera ban stands. So far this year she has sketched proceedings from two federal cases, both still pending: The terrorism-related charges against Boise Uzbek refugee Fazliddin Kurbanov and the antitrust lawsuit against St. Luke's Health System.

MOMENTS WITH MURDERERS

Strickland declines to specify her age but notes, "I'm past three-score years and 10."

Memories come fast as she flips through dozens of sketch-adorned matte boards in her Boise Bench home.

"He's a drug dealer." Flip, flip.

"She shot her husband's girlfriend while she was playing piano." Flip.

When she gets to a series on Joseph Duncan, who killed three members of a North Idaho family in 2005, abducted two children from the home and then sexually tortured and murdered the boy, Strickland notes a unique challenge posed by the defendant's flowing brown hair, beard and placid expression.

"It was kind of hard to draw Duncan without making him look like a biblical figure," she says.

Another Bible-related anecdote centers on murderer Lacey Sivak, who is serving a life sentence for the 1981 stabbing and shooting death of Dixie Wilson in Boise.

During Sivak's trial, she says, "he was bringing me Bible verses. We'd have a little chitchat before court every morning."

Strickland notes with chagrin a nearly five-year drought in buzz-worthy federal trials, with no call for her courtroom artistry between the 2008 Joseph Duncan trial and this year's Kurbanov case.

HOW SHE DOES IT

Capturing courtroom personalities and action with colored pencils and markers is a challenge, she says. She starts with the defendant or witness, then fills in the judge, attorneys and other courtroom details, depending on how long that witness is on the stand. Usually, a sketch takes 10 to 15 minutes. Once she drew 17 witnesses in one day.

She has to draw the details during the scene she's depicting, she says: She won't remember it accurately enough to fill it in later.

"At first I tried sketching in black and white and then filling in the colors later," she says. "But I don't have a photographic memory."

For Peterson's money, Strickland's drawings are a more essentially accurate record than photographs or video.

"I don't see many photographs from courtrooms," he says, "but when I do, I don't have any sense of the drama."

Strickland can focus her artist's eye on the jury and other parts of the courtroom that photographers must avoid. In her early years as a sketch artist, she drew realistic depictions of jurors. That's no longer allowed, leading to altered or blurred images she calls "ghost juries."

One of her sketches centers on a man who didn't make it onto the jury. Then-Gov. Cecil Andrus was in the jury pool for the prison-escape trial of Claude Dallas, who earlier had been convicted of killing two Idaho Fish and Game officers.

Andrus was not selected: "He said, 'I signed the extradition order,' " Strickland recalls.

'I RECORD WHAT I SEE'

Strickland has an art degree from the College of Idaho and worked drawing merchants, lawmakers and more for the now-defunct Intermountain Observer before she got her first gig as a courtroom artist.

She declines to say how much she's paid for a day sketching in court, but drawings that get picked up by national networks can yield nice paydays.

"This one made me about $1,000," she says of a sketch showing an FBI sniper testifying in the Randy Weaver case with a door behind him - the door Weaver's wife was standing beside when the sniper killed her. The A&E network and the short-lived NBC program "Now" bought that one, she says.

Strickland still enjoys making art from jurisprudence. Her career didn't go the direction she'd expected back in her College of Idaho days, she says, but it meets the objective.

"I wanted to become a scientific illustrator," she says. "This is about as close as I'm going to get. I just record what I see."

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Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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