Elizabeth C. “Betty” Wells, a noted courtroom artist whose work was published in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post and later won two Emmys while working for more than two decades for “NBC Nightly News,” died of complications from COVID-19 on Feb. 14 at Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.
The former longtime Hunting Ridge resident was 96.
Elizabeth Childs, known as Betty, was the daughter of William Melville Childs and Elizabeth Norris Childs, both schoolteachers and artists. She was born in Baltimore and raised in Woodlawn.
“It’s hard to recall when I wasn’t drawing something,” Ms. Wells wrote in her 2014 book, “Illustrating Justice for NBC News: Thirty Years of News Illustration and Courtroom Art,” which she wrote in collaboration with Vickie Gentri and Jeff Salava.
“I remember sketching with crayons on the kitchen floor in my home in Baltimore and I announced to my parents, ‘I want to become an artist … ‘ [and they] encouraged me every step of the way to fulfill my dream.”
An aunt, Baltimore watercolorist Nellie Norris, who was head of the art department at Forest Park High School, took her young niece on painting trips to the country “for florals and landscapes, then to the inner-harbor to paint both boats and ships,” Ms. Wells wrote.
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“She persuaded me to enter local and national art competitions that resulted in me winning an assortment of awards. Life in Baltimore was rich with subjects to sketch: shopping trips, kids at play, zoo expeditions, hair salon visits and street peddlers were among my many inspirations.”
After graduating from Catonsville High School, she was encouraged by her aunt to apply to the Maryland Institute College of Art and was taken to meet the president of the institute, Hans Schuler Sr., a noted Baltimore sculptor, who was so impressed with the young artist and her work that he gave her a four-year scholarship to the Mount Royal Avenue school, on the condition that she maintain a straight A average.
After completing school each day at 3 p.m., Ms. Wells took a bus downtown, where she produced fashion drawings for newspaper ads.
In 1947, she married George E. Wells III, a student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
She finished her degree in 1948, and a postgraduate year at MICA in 1949, while continuing to do fashion drawings for clients throughout the country and magazine illustrations.
While raising their three sons on Nottingham Road in Hunting Ridge, she worked several days a week in her husband’s OB-GYN practice, while continuing her artwork.
In the 1960s, when the city passed “1% for Art,” a law that supported municipal public art, Ms. Wells created mosaic tile murals at Lake Clifton High School, on a Pennsylvania Avenue overpass and on Orleans Street near the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Her professional break as a courtroom artist came in 1970, when Neal Friedman, a WBAL-TV reporter, suggested the station hire her to cover the trial of Black Panther H. Rap Brown in Ellicott City on charges of arson and inciting a riot in Cambridge in 1967.
Ms. Wells’ courtroom drawings began being published with regularity in The Sun, The Washington Post and The New York Times and on CBS’ Washington affiliate, WTOP-TV.
In 1974, NBC hired her to work in the network’s Washington bureau, where she shared an office and desk with the amiable weather forecaster Willard Scott, and for the next 25 years until retiring in 1999, Washington was her milieu. She was a familiar and constant presence in courtrooms and at Senate and House hearings, the Supreme Court and the White House.
“I’m fascinated by the news,” she told The Virginian-Pilot in 2014, “but heartbroken at what I hear.”
Some of her high-profile cases were Watergate and the trials of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, Oliver North, Ronald Reagan’s would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr., and snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
Before covering a trial or a congressional debate, she gathered as many pictures as possible of the personalities who would be present.
Her working attire included an apron-length bandoleer, which Ms. Wells said “weighed a ton,” that housed her arsenal of markers, pen and ink, pastels, watercolors and colored pencils that she needed to produce her dramatic color drawings.
Before settling into her chair, she removed a folding custom-made foam board lap easel that she then attached to her waist with a bungee cord to keep it secure on her knees as she drew.
Another essential tool was pair of sport or opera glasses that would narrow the distance from where she was sitting to the person she was drawing.
“It’s always good to have an idea of which sketches may be needed for the news broadcast. Try and sit as close to your reporter or correspondent in the courtroom so that signals by hand, face or note between you can indicate what subjects to sketch or not and how many are needed. Without this knowledge, trying to draw everyone in a fast-moving trial can waste valuable time,” she wrote in her book.
“Every artist wants to do a nice picture and you want it to be as artistic as possible,” she said in a 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview, “When you’re rushed and cramped and under a deadline, it’s very difficult. Speed, accuracy and photographic memory are important.”
Because she worked quickly, she earned the nickname of “Quick Draw Wells.”
Reflecting on her career, she told The Virginian-Pilot: “I found a line of work that could accommodate my speed.”
“Drawing on the run, finishing artwork in a helicopter, working long or running out of art supplies, all contribute to anxiety,” she explained in the interview.
“However, staying cool, thinking positive and loving your job put these in the proper perspective. Knowing that my artwork was used as a vehicle of communication for historic news events made the hard work meaningful and worthwhile.”
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Once back at her office and with a deadline looming, Ms. Wells completed her work with watercolors or acrylics.
Ms. Wells’ squeaky felt-tip pen once got under the skin of a Baltimore judge during a trial and he ordered all of the artists out of his courtroom.
Although she retired from NBC in 1999, after winning two Emmys for outstanding achievement in television, she came out of retirement in the early 2000s to cover the Muhammad-Malvo sniper trials.
Since 1980, Ms. Wells had been living in a 200-year-old house in Virginia Beach, where she continued painting until 2021, family members said. In addition to her artwork, other pastimes included swimming and ballroom dancing.
Her husband, George E. Wells III, died in 1985.
Due to COVID-19, there are no services scheduled at this time, family members said.
Ms. Wells is survived by three sons, John B. Wells of Severna Park, William H. Wells of Charleston, South Carolina, and George E. “Ed” Wells of Virginia Beach; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Her longtime companion, Al Rohling, died some years ago.