After going to art school, where he happened to be taught by LeRoy Neiman, Downs chose an unusual specialty: news sketches, and he was snapped up by the Chicago Daily News. When that paper died in 1978, he moved to the Chicago Sun-Times. Why? When a newspaper needed artwork — say, from a newsworthy criminal trial where cameras were not allowed — Downs created the visuals. (He was particularly proud of his coverage of “clown” serial killer John Wayne Gacy: he got into a staredown with the murderer, and the murderer looked away first. His resulting sketch is shown below.)
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his editor wanted an overview of the complicated scene in Dallas. Downs simply drew it all. He sketched celebrities, re-created news scenes, and provided whatever art the newspaper needed on deadline. “When I was stumped trying to come up with something,” remembered Sun-Times editorial writer Tom Frisbie, “I would go to John Downs, and he would say ‘I’ll have a sketch in five minutes’.” And he meant it: other Sun-Times artists marveled at Downs’ speed. And he did it well: his art is in the Smithsonian Institution, private collections, and the U.S. Air Force Art Collection, even though he had served in the Army. As he was declining from lymphoma, Downs was asked if he’d like to choose his hospital bed. He answered like an artist: “Do they come in colors?” John Michael Downs died at his Chicago home on October 21, at 82.