Adding Color to the Courthouse

With the help of a Houston artist, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison (CO & Magdalen '72) uses his artistic judgment to create a work environment seldom seen in courtrooms
By Mary Flood
Houston Chronicle


Jurors seeking a place to rest their eyes in court usually can choose from serious lawyer faces, dark paneling and portraits of retired judges in robes.

But in U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison's court, a panelist's gaze can stop on the bright blues of a modern canvas reminiscent of an underwater scene, the bold reds of a painting named Allred Dawn or four other engaging modern pieces of art.

This is not the movie set of Twelve Angry Men. The entrance to Ellison's courtroom looks like a nice hotel lobby or someone's fancy living room, complete with a sparkling chandelier in the court chamber.

The courtroom, jury room, staff offices and hallway are graced with the abstract art of Houstonian Van McFarland.

McFarland's late father shared an office with Ellison in 1996, when the judge first developed a taste for the works.

"As I acquired them, I grew to appreciate Van's work more and more," said Ellison, speaking in his chambers over softly playing classical music and sporting salmon-colored suspenders that picked up a color in his tie.

Ellison is not the average judge. He stops trials to explain the law in detail to jurors. He asks the audience to stand — not for him, but for the jurors. The former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, who has undergraduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard universities, sometimes approaches even throwaway motions with pensive gravitas.

Some find the Clinton appointee eccentric; others, a breath of fresh air.

"One of the things most courtrooms need is a splash of color and a sense of proportion. Most courtrooms are pretty drab," said Ellison, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate who held court in Laredo before moving to Houston's courthouse in 2005. "We should not be intimidated by the courthouse, but neither should we enter it as casually as we would enter a store or restaurant."

Ellison said all judges try in some ways to strike a balance. For him, Texas memorabilia, common in state courtrooms, send the wrong message for a federal court, where many people come from out of state.

He is not fond of the typical portraits of ex-judges. He recalled a bankruptcy case in which his adversary was a former judge whose portrait hung in the courtroom where they were arguing.

"In a windowless courtroom, good art adds a necessary degree of spice," Ellison said. "It's life-affirming, spirit-enhancing."

It's also unusual. Courtrooms generally are bare except for official seals, serious portraits, a little Texana or other memorabilia. Except for Ellison's paintings, the brightest thing in the federal courthouse is probably the blue carpet covered with gold federal seals in U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt's courtroom.

In Ellison's courtroom, the newest in the courthouse, he and McFarland spent time trying out canvases in various spots. They hung more than 20 paintings, many of them drawn on former trial exhibit boards that McFarland had acquired from his late father's law practice.

"My father spent a lot of time in courtrooms, and now my art hangs in one," the 40-year-old artist said.

The judge, a former practicing lawyer who is married to a lawyer, paid between $500 and $2,000 for each McFarland work. He also bought much of the furniture, the building sketches and the elaborate chandelier in his chambers. The furniture in the carpeted waiting area came from the home of the judge's late father.

"We are the custodian for the public, and we need to offer an environment where people feel comfortable," Ellison said.

Other judges, no doubt, want jurors and others to be comfortable but haven't gone this unorthodox route.

"I think it's wonderful — more inviting to lawyers and to parties," employment lawyer Bob Debes said of Ellison's courtroom. "It feels better than looking at pictures of old judges or maps of Texas."

Debes liked McFarland's art so much that he bought some for his office and his home.

Six of the brightly colored works hang in the courtroom itself. Jurors seem to appreciate the art, Ellison said, and one even responded by sending the judge his own creation. The piece hangs in the jury room.

"The courthouse is the face of government, and for many people it is where they'll have their most important interaction with government," Ellison said. "I meant this to be something that doesn't look government-issue."

It doesn't.