If you ask Don G. Cherry whether he is a police officer-turned-artist or an artist-turned-cop, he will answer, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"
At 40, Cherry has been the Metropolitan Police Department artist for 10 years. His portfolio is a gallery of the most-wanted rapists, robbers and murderers, and his weapons are a charcoal stick and a number two pencil.
In his studio in the third floor sex squad of District police headquarters, Cherry looks more artist than cop. A smock conceals his regulation blue shirt, and the plaid pants he wears, instead of regulation blue trousers, could well be the artist in Cherry rebelling.
What's more, as an artist -- and a serious one -- Cherry considers himself a professional. He has taken several art courses in his free time and lectures at the National Portrait Gallery and at the University of Maryland.
"I'm at the point now where I have confidence in my ability," he said. "I've reached a stage where I expect my drawing to look like the suspect."
But make no mistake about it: Don G. Cherry is still a cop. After 18 years on the force, he speaks of the criminals he draws with the kind of cynicism that could only come after years of dealing with both criminals and their victims.
He joined the police force as a disgruntled artist unable to make a steady income at commercial freelancing. In time, Officer Don G. Cherry grew into police work and, in his own words, "I loved it."
But the artist in Cherry could not be laid to rest, and before long the 6-foot-3 patrolman had once again picked up his artist's tools. He had no formal training and he carted his art tools around in an old cigar box; the sketches made from interviews with crime victims were squeezed in between his regular police duties.
"I never had any intention of being a police artist," he said. "I really had no designs on the job."
But by turning up the right face on "wanted" flyers time and again, Cherry was able to convince a budgetwary department that it needed a fulltime artist. He was given a permanent berth in the sex squad -- since most of his cases deal with rape victims -- and now receives the same $800 annual compensation as other police technicians.
Cherry is still coming up with the right face, a feat he attributes partly to his own artistic prowess, a little bit to formal training and a lot to "intuition."
"I think it's basically an artistic thing, but it's also an intuitive thing," he explained. "No one really knows what intuition is. It doesn't always work. In this business, the harder you try, the worse you get.
"The memory is an elusive thing. When the witness is relaxed, a good artist can coach you along. Even the victim, when she tries too hard to remember details, it doesn't work."
It is then, when he is describing the trade he literally introduced to the D.C. Police Department, that one begins to think that the cop is really first an artist in blue sheepskin. He launches into a dialogue on the works of his artistic contemporaries, especially one of his favorites, Frank Frazetta. His eyes light up when he describes a favorite painting and he exclaims, "My God! That was a fine piece of art work!"
But if his voice rings when he talks of good art, there is no less enthusiasm when he reminisces about years on the police force.
"I was one of the first one-man scout cars," he said, "I was one of the first guys to ride a motor scooter, which was interesting because I weighed about 250 pounds.
"I was one of the first guys in TAC undercover -- old clothes -- and I was the first street policeman accepted for the Mobile Crime Lab.
"I always was squeamish around dead bodies. After the first six months (with the Mobile Crime Lab) I was becoming so disgusted with all the grisly things I was seeing -- all the horrors -- I went to them and asked to be reassigned."
Cherry remembers vividly his superior officer -- whom he declined to name -- replying very matter-of-factly, "It's a job, Donny, it's just a job."
"It was the way he said it," Cherry remembers. "That's when I was able to separate myself from the tragedy. I learned not to take my work home with me."
It was the hardened policeman in Don Cherry, not the artist, who said at one point during the interview, "I hate rapists, I hate them. They satisfy their egos by torturing someone else. I talk to some of their victims sometimes. I become so embittered that I become more upset than (the victims) are."
Over the years, Cherry has developed a new respect for the victim: "It's really hard for us to understand what a woman goes through, to get her to get all that anger out of her system."
As Don Cherry the cop thinks of retirement in two years, Don Cherry the artist is "looking around" for ways to broaden his artistic horizon. "The only way I'm going to go anywhere with my drawing is to branch out," he said. "I'm going to have to start using my talents in more creative ways off the job."
Those "creative ways" include painting, more art classes and plans for an illustrated book. Cherry is also toying with the idea of a six-week intensive training course for potential police artists.
As for staying on with the D.C. police department, even after his 20 years, Cherry, already sounding like a freelancer, said, "They can hire me back but, of course, then it will be on my terms."
But Cherry, both the policeman and the artist, says that even in retirement, "Emotionally, I'll still be at 300 Indiana Avenue."