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The Courtroom Sketch Artist Who Immortalized Bay Area Revolutionaries

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A middle-aged woman with short hair smiles broadly, resting her chin on her right hand.
Rosalie Ritz (Family of Rosalie Ritz)

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n 1969, Rosalie Ritz’s frank take on Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin was controversial. Ritz, the sketch artist at Sirhan B. Sirhan‘s trial, described him after the fact as “the only honest man” in the courtroom. “It was my first experience with a revolutionary,” she told the Oakland Tribune shortly after the guilty verdict came down. “Of course it was pointless—all killing is pointless. You have to be nutty to do it. But Sirhan knew exactly what he wanted to do and he did it.”

The Sirhan trial was not the only time Ritz came into close contact with a revolutionary. She spent the late-1960s and ’70s covering the trials of Black Panthers including Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis and the Soledad Brothers. She also documented the high profile prosecution of heiress-turned-“urban guerrilla” Patricia Hearst.

In fact, Ritz was one of the most in-demand courtroom sketch artists of the era, providing illustrations for the Associated Press, CBS News, KPIX, KNXT and, yes, KQED. She was known to make up to 21 drawings a day in court and could sketch an entire jury in minutes. Ritz was also an accomplished writer who took readers behind the scenes. This article she wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press used the Patricia Hearst trial to highlight the overzealous security Ritz had experienced at similarly high profile cases involving Black defendants.

A newspaper article titled 'Near Mayhem—Tight Security.' '
Ritz wrote and illustrated several articles for the ‘Los Angeles Free Press’ during the high-profile trial of Patricia Hearst. (Los Angeles Free Press, Oct. 1975)

Ritz didn’t just have a front-row seat to one of the most turbulent eras in Bay Area history—she had the talent and determination to share it with the rest of the world. “It’s never as tough as you think it is,” she once said, “if you act from strength, not from fear, and you speak the truth to power.”

That Ritz wasn’t shy about offering her opinions about the events of the day made her work all the more compelling. When Sirhan was sentenced to death, she said, “I am unutterably opposed to the death penalty. It seems vengeful to me. I think anyone who attends a lot of trials would feel very strongly on this point.”

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Of Huey P. Newton, she shared: “Huey Newton was a very attractive young man and most intelligent. I learned a lot about social conditions from that trial … It was really awakening. Everyone was impressed by him—you couldn’t help but be.”

When 14 soldiers were tried for mutiny after participating in a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam War, Ritz was clear about whose side she was on. “I feel very sorry for those 14 young men,” she told the Oakland Tribune. “They all have low IQs, they are very young and vulnerable and not one of them, in my opinion, would be capable of initiating anything like a mutiny. The fact that [the Army] would even take such young men into the service strikes you.”

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itz was brave, willful and outspoken from a very young age—possibly the result of being the seventh of 10 children, all of whom lost their father at an early age. (Ritz was just 9.) At 14, Ritz’s prodigious artistic skills allowed her to attend art college in Milwaukee. At 16, she hit the road with her big sister’s ID, alongside four other young women, and earned money for her family making portraits of people at circuses, fairs and other community events across the midwest.

After graduating from Layton Art College, Ritz married a Navy officer (and future accountant) named Erwin in 1946, and had four daughters, Sandy, Barbara, Terry and Janet. The family’s home life was a happy one, full of painting, laughter and dance. (“She and my dad were like Fred and Ginger,” Sandy tells KQED Arts today.) The couple, together for more than 60 years, was also athletic—Ritz was an excellent golfer who competed in amateur championships.

It was in 1966 that the Ritz family relocated to Walnut Creek from Washington D.C. Ritz was already established as a courtroom artist with a vibrant, vigorous style, having landed her first job at the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Speaking to the Oakland Tribune 15 years after the fact, Ritz recalled: “Somebody I knew there knew Joe McCarthy, so I went to his office and asked if I could attend his closed Senate hearings. I just started sketching while I was there and when I came out of the room, [a TV station] offered to buy the sketches. That started it.”

What kept it going was Ritz’s tenacity and people skills. On the first day of Huey P. Newton’s trial, Ritz successfully talked her way into the courtroom, despite the fact that she’d not yet been issued a press pass. That there were also 3,000 protesters outside made her entrance all the more miraculous. Later, she was permitted to visit Newton in a holding cell to draw him—a privilege not afforded to any other court reporters. It probably helped that she understood fundamentally what the Black Panthers were trying to do. “These were people who really believed in doing the right thing,” she later said.

Despite Ritz’s commitment to covering the toughest, most high-profile cases of her day, the trials sometimes took their toll. Ritz’s daughter Sandy describes her mom’s days in court as “often stressful to her psyche. The mass murderers, violent outbreaks, the injustices, the racism. The work was challenging.” But, Sandy continues, “She always knew the historical significance of what she was doing, and was passionate about it. She knew that she was the eyes for the world. She knew that her work was the only pictorial record of history occurring in California at that time, and she was often the first and only reporter in the courtroom for some trials.”

It was this knowledge that impacted Ritz’s decision to retain ownership of all of her own artwork. Though it would have earned her a better living, she never sold her courtroom sketches—only the use of them. After her death from lung cancer in 2008, Ritz donated more than 1,800 of her courtroom drawings to the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley. Sandy and her sisters worked on cataloging and digitizing the collection so the drawings could stand as a public record of some of the most important moments in California history. “Justice was one of her strongest forces,” Sandy recalls.

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way from the courtroom, Ritz was passionate about making large-scale oil paintings and sculptures, and she always had one eye on the wider Bay Area art community. In 1974, she opened the Upstairs Art Gallery at 927 Broadway alongside fellow artists, Thomas Bray and Edy Keeler. Opening a gallery in Oakland was extremely important to Ritz. She recognized that the Bay Area arts scene—including the organizations responsible for handing out grants and funding—was focused almost exclusively on San Francisco. And she desperately wanted to change that.

“My opinion of Oakland is that it is a very beautiful city,” Ritz told the Oakland Tribune in 1974. “[Its neglect] is due to snobbery of people around Oakland, and we let them get away with it. What we’re going to do is start saying ‘The Oakland San Francisco Bay Area’ and they’ll complement one another.”

Ritz was also determined that the Upstairs Gallery should be warm and welcoming for all people. She believed that the large art institutions in the Bay could be off-putting for everybody but the elite. “People don’t relate to it because it’s for people dressed in fancy clothes,” she once said of the Oakland Museum. With that in mind, Ritz and her friends lovingly restored the Upstairs Gallery space, including a 100-year-old fireplace. (“These buildings are museum pieces and I think they should be saved,” she said at the time.) The Beth Eden Baptist Church choir performed at the gallery opening.

Though the Upstairs Gallery was a scrappy endeavor once described by the Tribune as a “struggling, always dollar-short art colony above a pawn shop,” Ritz successfully made the impact on the arts scene that she had hoped for. In 1979, when the City of Oakland and the Labor Department awarded federal unemployment seed money to the Oakland art community for the first time, it went to Ritz and the Upstairs Gallery. She used the $100,000 check to hire staff artists at $700 a month. (That’s about $4,200 in 2022 money.)

When the gallery was inundated with applicants, Ritz told the Tribune: “It was shocking, and a good indication this city has deeper problems than it realizes. It’s not only the tradesmen, the unskilled, the young people, minorities, or the ex-felons who can’t find jobs. It’s right here in our cultural midst.” Ritz pledged to help as many of the non-successful candidates as she could, seeking out other outlets that might offer art-related jobs in Oakland. “Oakland can’t afford to lose them to other cities,” she said of the artists.

In the end, Rosalie Ritz approached everything she did with a full-hearted determination that enabled her to live life on her own terms and in a way that sought to benefit others. Her uncompromising vision—for both her art and her Bay Area communities—drove her to leave her mark on the world. And at the end of her life, she knew that she had.

“I just had a wonderful life,” Ritz said. “It was a great ride. I always had a smile because I did what I wanted to do. I interpreted the world in drawings, in writing. I had a good time.”

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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