Acclaimed artist maintains 'focus' for a world to see

By Tom Kirvan

It has been said that there is no inspiration quite like a deadline.

Carole Kabrin, courtroom sketch artist extraordinaire, can fully appreciate the truism, as evidenced by her skill at slaying the deadline dragon for the likes of such clients as CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Al Jazeera.

“Courtroom drama provides me with an adrenaline rush that is hard to describe,” said Kabrin, a Dearborn resident who has helped chronicle some of the most newsworthy national cases over the past four decades. “You have to possess a special focus to block out the noise and everything happening around you.”

Perhaps never more so than when Kabrin was assigned by ABC to cover the Oklahoma City bombing trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in 1997, some two years after the two defendants were arrested for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, including 19 children.

The trials included graphic testimony and horrific images of the carnage, the kind that could bring even the most hardened court officers and observers to tears.

“It was hard to keep it together at times, especially when the testimony turned to all the children who were killed by the bombing,” Kabrin related. “I had to work doubly hard to stay composed, to not let my emotions get the better of me. After all, I was trying to churn out 10 or 11 drawings a day that could be used for the nightly newscast, and the deadline was really tight since Denver was two hours behind New York time. It was crazy.”

The time challenge was heightened by a U.S. District Court judge known to have a “firm grip on his gavel.”

Judge Richard P. Matsch, a then 66-year-old federal jurist and a University of Michigan Law School alum, presided over the McVeigh trial, and he carried a no-nonsense reputation who placed a premium on legal ethics, preparation, and punctuality, according to Kabrin.

“Let’s just say that he ran a very tight ship in court,” Kabrin said.

As a result, Kabrin did her best to follow his high standards, making a special effort to keep a low profile during the oftentimes tense trial proceedings.

“There was no time to go out for lunch during trial days, so I had a habit of stashing some fruit in my bag that I could munch on when there were breaks,” Kabrin explained. “It helped keep me from starving.”

But then one day in court, Kabrin noticed something disturbing – and it had nothing to do with the trial testimony unfolding in front of her.

“I looked down beside me and there was a trail of ants coming from my bag,” Kabrin said, still mortified some 20 years later over an episode that truly came to fruition. “Suddenly, the ants seemed to be everywhere and there I was trying to keep them from interrupting the trial proceedings and causing Judge Matsch to cite me for contempt. I was almost in a state of panic, hoping that no one was noticing what was going on around me.”

Almost miraculously, Kabrin somehow controlled the growing infestation, hurrying out of court during a well-timed break in the trial to rid herself of a problem that was reaching epic proportions.

“Now, some 20 years later, it seems funny,” said Kabrin. “At the time, it was anything but. I was sure that I was going to be the next one on trial.”

In addition to ants, Kabrin has “rubbed elbows” in court with the notable and notorious over an artistic career that spans 41 years. She has drawn the legal combatants in cases involving Bush and Gore, Whitewater, boxing heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, the Underwear Bomber, former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Macomb County killer Stephen Grant, and the grand jury proceedings investigating the disappearance of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Kabrin, whose work was featured in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” documentary, cut her artistic teeth on the Hoffa case, racing down the hallways at the federal courthouse in Detroit to catch fleeting glimpses of several Mafia kingpins called to testify before the grand jury.

“I would scramble to get into the elevator with them, quickly sketching what I could before they were whisked away,” Kabrin recalled. “They were actually quite nice to me. They knew I was green, but I could tell they liked my work and appreciated my hustle.”

She honed her craft while a student at Wayne State University, where she earned her bachelor and master degrees.

“I sometimes would spend 11 hours a day in the Wayne State cafeteria drawing people, trying to sketch as many as possible, as quickly as I could,” Kabrin said. “I would go to the airport or to bars and do the same, working in noisy and busy places where you learned not to be fazed by the surroundings.”

In 1980, she was hired by Channel 4 in Detroit, the local NBC affiliate. She later joined Channel 7, an ABC station that showcased the talents of newscaster Bill Bonds on a nightly basis. After a decade of drawing for the local stations, Kabrin began establishing her national profile when hired by ABC to cover the 1990 trial of then Washington, D. C. Mayor Marion Barry Jr., who was entangled in an FBI drug sting operation.

“I desperately wanted the chance to cover that trial and my perseverance helped give me the opportunity,” said Kabrin, who would eventually work on retainer for ABC over the course of 12 years.

“Once I was hired by ABC, I literally was on call 24/7, and would have to drop everything I was doing to hop a plane for a case or court proceeding anywhere in the country. It was a dream come true.”
The dream, in some courtrooms, was altered when TV cameras became commonplace in judicial proceedings, but that has not lessened Kabrin’s enthusiasm for her work.

“You will see that my focus is making people look like they feel inside and not what that ‘lying camera’ sees,” she said with a laugh.

Her portraits hang in state and federal courthouses, and it is a true legal badge of honor to appear in a Kabrin drawing, even if on the wrong side of the law.

In 2002, Kabrin won a coveted Emmy Award for her courtroom art, and most recently saw her drawings of oncologist Dr. Farid Fata appear on the popular afternoon TV show “Dr. Oz” as it delved into the topic of “medical fraud.”

Now an adjunct professor at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Kabrin is a whirlwind of art activity, continuing to specialize in sketching court cases for television and digital audiences, while also offering portraitures of the two-legged and four-legged varieties.

“In-between assignments, my favorite is to do recreations of winning trials for attorneys as well as court portraiture,” said Kabrin, a life-long horse lover who also caters to the equestrian set. “My love is to show a person in action . . . bold, strong, and in movement.”