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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 18, 2002

The art of judging The art of judging (January 18, 2002)

LaDoris Cordell draws inspiration from the bench

by Bryan Chin

LaDoris Cordell loves to doodle and sketch during her free time and -- she admitted -- even while at work. There isn't much that misses her artistic gaze, from coffee mugs to paper clips to paper binders.

It's a hobby that started years ago, when she was the first black female judge on the Santa Clara County Municipal Court.

"I would sit listening to a case, and I'm sorry to say but sometimes they were really boring," said Cordell, 52, who retired from the bench last February to become the vice provost for campus relations at Stanford. "I'd try to stay focused, so one way I would do it would be to start drawing the jurors."

Over her 19 years as a judge, Cordell branched out from making head sketches of jurors ("The key was to draw them while they weren't looking at me.") to creating more cohesive cartoons and more serious drawings that reflected her experiences at the bench. Since then, Cordell, who never took any formal art lessons, has seen her cartoons turned into hugely successful "legal" calendars and witnessed her charcoal sketches get auctioned off at pretty impressive bids.

The public can get a rare glimpse of Cordell's artistry through Feb. 2 at Palo Alto City Hall. Entitled "The Art of Judging," the exhibit features 20 sketches, five charcoal portraits and six colored-pencil legal cartoons. These include "For Lucy," a tribute to the San Jose Mercury News photographer who was murdered late last year, and "America's Child," a portrait of a child standing in front of a billowing American flag.

Nearly all of Cordell's works were auctioned off on Jan. 9 at a benefit for the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project. The event raised $7,000 for the project.

"People get to see what I do with this exhibit, which is nice, but that's not the motivator," said Cordell, who has never personally profited from any of the works she has sold. "I'm not one of those people who has a whole lot of money and can be a philanthropist. The next best thing is, because I have this skill and talent, I can generate funds by what I do. That's my way of contributing. And it's more fun."

Cordell, who has always been fond of art, knew that the Mural Art Project would be the perfect organization to work with. With its mission to educate teens about community activism, the project employs teens to assist in creating murals for schools in the Ravenswood school district that reflect the diversity and pride of the community. Organizers originally meant for the project to occur only during summer months, but after a successful kick-off last year that left 45 kids on the waiting list, it has been extended for the year-long duration.

"The parents were so supportive and the schools were so excited to have us," said project director and cofounder Sonya Clark-Herrera. "The unique thing about this project is that the kids have to do all the labor that's involved. They get to become a part of the community that they weren't necessarily a part of before."

Clark-Herrera said she was excited to work with Cordell in generating funds for the project.

"All of the proceeds from the auction will go to it," she said. "And in terms of guidance, Judge Cordell has been so helpful. She really helped us to push through a funding request to get even more funding."

Copies of Cordell's light-hearted 2002 calendar will also be on sale during the exhibit and are currently on sale at the project's Web site (

"My daughter once said to me, 'You don't draw people who are very happy,'" said Cordell. "It's true. When I do my serious stuff, I am moved much more by what ought to be done to make things better. I am never content. I'm always trying to make things better."

What: "The Art of Judging," a benefit for the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project

Where: Palo Alto City Hall lobby, 250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto

When: Through Feb. 2. Palo Alto City Hall is open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

Call: (650) 520-8061.


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