By Paul Turner
John Downs’s first day of work might have been his last. It was 1962 and it was only his second day back in town after four years in the army. A former student at the Art Institute, he’d been hired as an editorial illustrator for the Chicago Daily News. What his work might entail didn’t quite hit him until he sat down in the viewing area of the death chamber at Cook County Jail, at 26th and California. As he and other members of the press sat transfixed, the guards brought in a man convicted of murdering his children and attempting to cover it up by burning down his house. While the doomed man was buckled into the electric chair, Downs realized he had to pay attention to the gory details so he could rush back to the newsroom and sketch the scene for the next day’s edition. He felt ill. “I guess I wasn’t the only one. When it was over, they were examining him to make sure he was dead. ‘Badoom-boom’ I hear behind me. I think it was a guy from the Trib, passed out.”
Despite that horrifying first day (“I never really got over it”), Downs kept the job. His press card read “artist/reporter” and he drew for every section: front page, sports, food–he was even sent as far away as Australia for the travel section. He also covered the courts, witnessing every major trial in town. When the Daily News folded, in 1978, he continued on at the Sun-Times.
Downs came to Chicago from rural Tomah, Wisconsin, in 1955, when he enrolled on scholarship at the School of the Art Institute. Once in school, however, supporting himself with a part-time job as a railroad brakeman, Downs became disenchanted with the program. He wanted to be an artist, but he knew he needed to work.
“I loved to paint, but I knew that to make a living you had to be able to do the commercial stuff.” His last year, “we were told that we gotta start getting into this more modernistic painting and stuff….I was concerned about getting into the field and this wasn’t going to help.” Downs voiced his frustrations about the lack of balance in the curriculum to various faculty members. His favorite teacher, LeRoy Neiman, told him not to worry about it, but he was told by some higher-ups, who felt that he wasn’t being very grateful about his scholarship, to keep his trap shut.
Downs decided he needed a break, and in 1958 he and two friends–including Richard Westgard, now a senior editorial artist at the Daily Herald–dropped out, bought a jeep, and headed west on Route 66. “I wouldn’t say we were beatniks,” he cautions, “but boy the money was tight.” Then he grins, “We painted up a storm.”
The three had left with every intention of eventually returning to school, but the U.S. Army intervened. Only a month into the trip–they made it as far as Arizona–the jeep started to fall apart and they headed back to Chicago, where Downs was notified that he’d been drafted.
Before reporting for duty at Fort Sam Houston, Downs took some landscapes he’d done on his road trip to a friend who worked at the Herald-American. The art director happened by, glanced at the work and offered Downs a job. When Downs told him he was about to be inducted, the man said the offer would stand till he returned.
In Texas, Downs was given an assignment as a medical illustrator at a training hospital. More than 40 years later, he’s still surprised at his good fortune (“They made me an artist!”). The officer in charge of the art department, Colonel Vincent Hack, “was partial to guys from Chicago because his brother was [longtime Cubs third baseman and manager] Stan Hack.”
Downs had enough free time to work as an artist in his own right: he painted, taught classes, had shows. He rented a studio in a historic district of San Antonio next to one owned by Mount Rushmore artist Gutzon Borglum, and married a local woman of Mexican heritage. The army condoned his extracurricular activities. They “thought it was good PR and was good for relations with civilians and basically left me alone. It’s amazing. My time in the army flew by.”
In 1962, he was discharged and he came back to Chicago, but not back to the Art Institute. His first day home, Downs headed out to see that art director at the Herald-American. On a whim he stopped first at the Daily News and, offered a job on the spot, he never left.
During more than 30 years as a staff illustrator covering the courts, Downs drew just about every prominent judge, mobster, politician, prosecutor, and criminal defendant, from Richard Speck to Gary Dotson, from Jim Thompson to Michael Jackson (during the civil trial over “The Girl Is Mine”). He covered the Dowalibys and the Chicago Seven, drawing Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, even Mayor Richard J. Daley on the stand.
One drawing from the Greylord trials of the mid-80s shows a showboating U.S. attorney Dan Webb grilling a sour-looking Judge Richard LeFevour. At the trial of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa a newspaper photographer captured Hoffa during a recess studying several Downs sketches that had appeared on a back-page layout.
John Wayne Gacy, brought into court early one day, noticed Downs sketching him and turned his chair away from the judge to pose for the artist. Bailiffs forced him to face the judge, but not before Gacy gave Downs a look that he says gives him the creeps to this day.
Downs retired from the Sun-Times in 1994, consigning his newspaper sketches to basement storage. Divorced, his three children grown, he’s thrown himself into painting, the sort of fine art he rebelled against as a student. His small Rogers Park condo overlooking the lake is cluttered with paint, chalk, canvas, and brushes, along with work both finished and in progress. “I work every day, sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and start drawing.”
This summer, concerned that his drawings might start deteriorating, he pulled them out of the basement and started peddling them at local art fairs. More controversial subjects, like Gacy and Speck, get left at home, though they’re for sale too; he shows them by appointment. This weekend he’ll be in Skokie at Old Orchard. He’s got them priced between $100 and $600, and though he’s sold ten already, he’s fairly skeptical of their appeal. “Maybe somebody can get some use out of them. I’d rather see it that way. It certainly isn’t something you would hang in your living room.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.