“I’ve drawn almost every judge. Most lawyers. Countless cops. Many prosecutors. Lots of witnesses.”
Dick Ott has a unique way of passing the time while waiting in court as a trial lawyer: he draws. These aren’t just little scribbles in margins of a notebook, they’re extremely detailed sketches that may become part of an elaborate painting later.
And when he’s called to a meeting out west or on a case up north? You can bet he’ll leave early enough to stop on the side of the road, get his easel out from the trunk of his car, and paint the scenery.
This passion is more than just a part-time hobby for Ott. In fact, his focus on art surpasses his practice of law—he attended art school years before hitting the legal books. His journey to law school is certainly not considered traditional, but may be called any of the following: creative, interesting, adventurous, fascinating or even innovative.
Ott attended the University of Colorado in Boulder for two years before deciding to take a sabbatical to travel. At that time, he was majoring in psychology, and hoping to be a writer. While traveling across the South Pacific and journaling, he slowly began incorporating illustrations into his entries.
His career path truly changed when he walked into an art museum in Wellington, New Zealand, and saw Rembrandt paintings. He spent the entire day staring at this artwork, and left with a newfound resolution to become a painter. An encounter with an Australian Aboriginal man who showed him earth paintings—and the powerful impact they held on their lives— in caves only further cemented what would become a future creative obsession.
As soon as Ott returned to the U.S., he headed to the Art Students League in NYC to take summer classes. He then went back to CU to finish his degree in psychology—with the addition of a minor in fine arts. After graduating, he enrolled in the Pratt Institute in New York to get his masters in Art Therapy. He resumed taking classes at the Art Students League during this time as well.
“While I was doing this [school in New York], I was also working in a psychiatry hospital in Brooklyn,” Ott chuckles. “There’s a novel in that by itself.”
He later moved back to Denver to work as a therapist on the psych ward at Porter Hospital. While doing so, he continued taking drawing classes at night to placate his artistic side. In that class, he met someone who had also attended the Art Students League in NYC, artist Phil Levine. They agreed that the West was severely lacking in such an art school—and that they should be the ones to create it. They spent a year-and-a-half planning, and in 1987, the Art Students League of Denver opened its doors.
Ott was still working at the hospital during this time—and applying to law schools. His father is a lawyer, so throughout his travels, education, and professional and creative ventures, the idea of becoming a lawyer was always in the back of his mind. He says that growing up, he was able to see first-hand just how versatile a law degree is. He was accepted into the University of Denver College of Law, and began attending night classes there—while working full-time—during the first week the Art Students League of Denver opened.
A membership-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the art school strategized by Ott, Levine, and others took off almost immediately—and is still successful today. Located at the Sherman School in the Wash Park area, the Art Students League of Denver has become one of the biggest nonprofit art schools in the West. It sees more than 800 students a month, and cites approximately 100 recognized artists as teachers.
“It’s one of the most productive things I’ve ever done,” says Ott. “It’s all very positive.”
Those are big words from someone who has done so much. After finishing law school, Ott worked as a district attorney in Adams County before joining his father’s law practice (where he still is today). He cites negotiating and solving problems as his favorite aspect of the job. And he doesn’t see his passion and profession as conflicting at all—he’s actually found many similarities.
“I think almost all good lawyers walk around thinking about solving problems—and that’s the same with painting,” Ott explains.
Except instead of thinking about how to present a case or which angle to take, Ott’s also brainstorming ways to make certain lighting work or how to capture a color. He says that they both require total concentration on a goal—whether that be comprehension and representation through art or getting the best result for your client.
As a trial lawyer, it’s important to think on your feet. Ott says you have to read and understand what’s happening around you in court and throughout the day; you have to learn how people communicate in all forms and then react to that. Similarly, when he’s painting, he has to fully understand the subject to bring it to life and capture the right essence.
“One of the advantages of not making a living as an artist is the ability to only paint what I want to,” Ott laughs.
Although he does the occasional piece for commission, Ott largely leaves his artwork up to inspiration. He’s currently working on group paintings—compiling numerous different characters he’s drawn in the past into one big painting. An example is shown above. These were all children who walked by him while he was waiting in court at some point.
He’s also challenging himself by recreating on canvas historic images of child prisoners. He finds small (often black and white) images online, and tries to bring them to life and preserve a memory. This series includes: a freedom writer, a young girl going to Auschwitz, and several children from decades ago in countries like Poland and Ukraine, whose crime was simply poverty.
Along with that impressive project, Ott has painted countless landscapes, houses and animals.
“Sometimes I’ll paint to entertain myself—like I’ve painted nearly 85 Colorado birds,” Ott says. “To me, that’s interesting. It started with whatever bird was at our feeder.”
But don’t let his artistic ideals fool you—during business hours, Ott is fully immersed in the practice of law. He does take a more creative approach to trial than many, however, noting that he considers all facets of a client’s life and situation to determine possible consequences. For instance, that may mean more treatment and less conviction.
He believes that the ability to make assertive decisions is important early on in a law career, so that young lawyers learn (and grow) from their mistakes. It also cultivates an instinctive trust in your own choices and inner voice. Ott says that while working on a case, he always asks himself: “What’s the right thing to do?”
So, he advises young lawyers today to “Learn what you can from older lawyers you respect—those who understand how things work. Try to look at cases from both sides and analyze it in parts, so that you understand how each works, too. And don’t forget to look at the big picture!”
Also, don’t get so caught up in meetings and briefs that you forget to take time to follow your other passions. As the wise Danny Kaye said: “Life is a great big canvas—throw all the paint on it you can.”
By Courtney Gibb, the communications and marketing specialist for the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations and editor of The Docket. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.