Monday, June 4, 2007 | Dark suits and shiny leather briefcases lugging reams of paper fill a courtroom in downtown’s federal courthouse one recent Monday afternoon. Preparing to enter pleas for new charges and to receive trial dates, defense lawyers line up with their clients.

Those clients include Brent Wilkes, a military contractor accused of bribing former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and Wilkes’ childhood friend, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, once No. 3 at the CIA. Federal prosecutors sit at a table facing Judge Larry Alan Burns. Reporters and court employees nearly fill the back seats of the room.

From the front left corner of the gallery, Greg High’s shock of white and gray hair bounces as he glances up from behind his glasses. With a sketch pad resting on the legs of his khaki pants, High purses his lips and touches his charcoal pencil to the paper, beginning rough outlines of the people in the room.

The hearing has not yet begun, but High starts to sketch the prosecutors, defendants and attorneys while they chat casually.

“If I waited until it started, I’d get a lot of backs of heads, a lot of black suits,” he whispers. He explains some courtroom artists try to capture the action and ambience of a hearing or a trial — like snapping a photograph of a specific moment in the closed-to-cameras proceedings. But High’s technique is to focus most on creating an accurate likeness of the people in the room, and combining those likenesses into one or two drawings.

High’s been the county’s unofficial courtroom sketch artist for 25 years. His profession puts him in the front row at some of the region’s most compelling legal dramas.

He’s the one who lets the rest of us see inside the courtroom, where photographers and television cameras cannot shoot. His images are what San Diegans associate with recent headlines: the grave faces of City Council members embroiled in the Strippergate scandal; the grimace and tears from Cunningham’s trial and subsequent sentence; the young Marines involved in the Haditha and Hamdaniya hearings at Camp Pendleton.

He retains ownership of each sketch, selling the rights to capture it on film to as many stations as are interested. Even if a half-dozen camera operators film the same drawing, they’re each going to move the camera across the piece differently, he says. How much they pay for the sketches is proprietary information, he says, but the gig lands him between $10,000 and $15,000 a year.

If art is made by bringing together a bunch of different elements to form a complete picture, High’s life and livelihood are themselves artistic creations. The courtroom sketching is secondary in his sense of his life’s work, but he earns much of his living that way. “It’s my bread and butter, what pays a great number of the bills,” he says.

What’s first: painting at his home in Escondido. The courtroom sketches and other freelance work, like graphics for magazines and storyboards for television commercials, are means to that creative end.

Back in the courtroom, the Wilkes-Foggo hearing stretches for more than two hours, and High spends about that long creating two drawings. As the proceedings begin, he leans forward, using just about four inches of the edge of his seat, bracing the toes of his brown Birkenstock-style sandals against the chair legs. He moves his head left and right, peering through the wall of attorneys to catch a glimpse of the judge.

He says he’s come a long way since his “fledgling years,” when he once spilled his chalk, loudly, on the courtroom floor. Now, the whooshing of his pencil as he sweeps it across the paper is the only sound he makes.

“I’m trying to be as discreet as possible,” he whispers.

Trained in the Impressionist technique, High uses a lot of purple and other dark colors to create the “impression” of black, then contrasts them with brightly colored backgrounds and accents. He writes the date in the top right corner, and identifies each person in the sketches. With the characters drawn in pencil, High starts to shade and outline with purple pastel. He uses his thumb to smudge the purple, then adds some navy blue. A reddish orange flushes across the faces and hands of the men in the drawing, then some peach to even their skin tones. White is added to hair, shirt collars. Except for Wilkes’ defense attorney, Mark Geragos, who wears a pink shirt and tie.

Brown furniture and yellow and blue backgrounds sweep into the drawing as the hearing progresses through the defendants’ pleas and their attorneys’ legal arguments with prosecutors. High tears a piece of paper towel in two and smudges some of the lines.

“I spend most of my attention staying in the lines, just like kindergarten,” he later quips.

A last dab of peach is used to mark one attorney’s bald spot as he faces the judge.

High reaches for the pencils balanced on each of his ears and finishes the fine details of the drawings. When both are finished, he digs into his gray portfolio and pulls out an individually wrapped hand wipe to clean his fingers. Then, he takes the sketches outside the courthouse and clips them with clothes pegs to his portfolio, which he props up against a lamp post, to be filmed by television station camera operators.

♦♦♦

A week or so later, High sets up a tripod in his studio, a detached little hut with a skylight at his home on the south end of Escondido. He’s photographing some of his paintings to add to his database.

It’s plain: High is in his element. The studio is quiet — no cross-examinations or attorney’s objections here. Birds chirp and a clock ticks. His home is one of just a few accessed by a private road and is surrounded by trees, visible through the window of the studio. He wears a blood donor T-shirt, navy plaid pajama pants and gray slippers.

“My ambitions in life have been really small,” he says. “When I was a student, I just had a desk. I dreamed I would just dress in cotton and work in a studio. You’ve got to be careful what you dream for.”

On the easel is a painting of Carmichael, his cat and best buddy. Carmichael’s not an only child, but High balks at disclosing how many he has. He and his wife, Irene, take in feral cats and have several now, since their friends found out about their soft spot and brought other strays. “Pretty soon, we were cat people,” he says.

The studio is stacked with pieces of art, in a wide diversity of styles. Some are vestiges of old shows; some have never been seen by anyone. Putting together gallery collections is exhausting, he says.

“It’s a lot of work to show,” he says. “To me, I’m what I make. I’d rather just do stuff. But it’s too bad that it’s all stacked up in here.”

High’s copy of Picasso’s “Le Reve” (“The Dream”) painting hangs in one corner, from a show he did copying and twisting some famous works. There are landscapes and scenes from the John Muir Trail, which High and his wife hiked in three-and-a-half weeks a few years ago. He’s hung a couple of nudes that he does “when I get bored.” He balked at narrowing down his official style when he was in grad school, and now he creates whatever he wants to, no matter what style.

“It’s a hodge-podge,” he says. “I’m basically a whole gallery of artists in one.”

Scattered throughout the studio are High’s most recent obsession, several pieces he calls “Random Access Compositions.” High compares the pieces to the way pixels work on computers — tiny squares of color and data that, when combined and seen from a distance, create a complex picture. He creates the two- or three-inch squares separately, then combines them and affixes them to a larger canvas. Each square’s boundaries are still detectable, but sometimes the colors line up from one square to the next and create the illusion of an attached shape. His eyes flash as he explains the conceptual nature, the game of this style.

“It’s an exciting painting to just contemplate,” he says. “A unit unto itself, relating to the other units.”

Free from the hushed courtroom, he speaks in gusts of philosophy and self-actualization. In his art, he uses many bright colors, pastoral pastels — and that’s only natural, he says.

“I like positive art,” he says. “I’m not a negative guy. Art has become grossly cynical. Once upon a time, art was church art, uplifting, a lofty subject matter. But in the 20th century, it’s about individual psychosis.”

Once, in anticipation of a death row inmate’s execution, a station asked if he’d go to San Quentin and draw the proceedings. He said he mustered the courage, but the execution was delayed and he didn’t have to go. He was relieved.

Indeed, High doesn’t have much of a stomach for art documenting torture or oppression. Once, an Escondido theatre owner commissioned a work illustrating a musical about Jack the Ripper. The piece High created, one of those square-mosaic compositions, actually made him physically nauseous, with its implied violence in the colors and the movement in the piece.

A lot of modern art is like reality TV, he says. People gravitate to the sensational, to the Van Gogh — a master, he admits, but a tragic one.

“There are other people in the world than Paris Hilton,” he says. “People are remarkable in their obscurity.”

♦♦♦

Born in Iowa to Methodist parents, High moved frequently when his dad’s Coast Guard job transferred him all over the world. He attended the University of Michigan and obtained a master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art there.

Between stints as a mail carrier in Ann Arbor and a short marriage to a swim coach, High decided, “I’m getting the hell out of Michigan.” He came to San Diego, where his parents had retired, in 1977 and soon was hired as the artist-on-call for KGTV.

He soon realized there was not nearly enough court sketching work to make a living, and picked up a job drawing presentation boards for U.S. Navy training sessions. He learned, among other things, to draw an F-14 fighter plane from memory.

He and Irene met on June 11, 1976, under a full moon, at a lecture at a fine art museum.

“It was love at first sight,” he says. Last year, they realized June 11 would again be a full moon. So they decided, 30 years later, to finally get married. High’s dad performed the ceremony on the beach.

“Now we’re married, and nothing has changed,” he says. The John Muir Trail hike they did together is one of the highlights of his life. And the story they wrote about their trek, illustrated by High’s paintings, garners thousands of hits in its spot on his website.

High says when he passes on, his art will all go to his daughter, who teaches on-camera acting in Oceanside.

“She can make a funeral pyre, if she wants,” he says wryly.

♦♦♦

When High draws someone’s last moments before being sentenced to a lifetime in a cell, he’s acutely aware of what they’ll miss. For him, the line between art and living is smudged, if it even exists at all.

“We’re here to live, and to live to the utmost,” he said. “I can’t be a person who explores the underbelly of existence, because I’m on the surface, enjoying it. I wish I could paint my philosophy. I may be doing it; I don’t know.”

The time he spent in art school developed his aesthetic sense, but also his philosophical notions, he says.

“Right now I’m trying to celebrate my maker,” he says. “If you keep trying to move forward, you’ll realize a lot of blessings. I don’t have a tormented past; I don’t perceive a tormented future. That’s really who I am: I create stuff.”

“Are there other things I could be doing?” he continues. “Yeah, I could be ruling the free world. But I take on what I can.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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