Feature – Scenic Art Studios

History has proven that over time the best artwork are the ones that complement others. Sometimes it’s the lighting at a specific concert or a costume in a film, just to name a few. However, one avenue of artistic craft seems to be the perfect mix of natural aesthetic in scenic design for elaborate entertainment productions. Luckily, there is one company that has had consistent success in this medium and continues to wow audiences well into the modern age. Scenic Art Studios (SAS) is that one stop shop that allows viewers to be transported into new and vibrant worlds.

Founded by Joe Forbes in 1994, the shop is known for their stunning backdrops and theater props for stage. Located in Newburgh, NY, their expertise extends further into film, television and special events. In essence, there is really nothing this group of artists cannot do in the end to achieve sate the imagination. Mr. Forbes had much to say on his adventures to date alongside his colleague and fellow scenic artist, Susan Jackson.

SAS had a rather sudden start to it all. “[It started] like most great beginnings, by accident. The company I was working for went bankrupt and the clients were calling me, telling me to change the name on the door. I had a team working with me, and it sounded like the only way to save all our jobs. I had no idea what I was doing. I would not even let my wife Deb, who is also a scenic artist, get involved with the company because I felt like it was most likely going to crash and burn. I mean, I knew nothing about business. Now 25 years later, during the heart of the season, say September to March, we may have 50 scenic artists working in seven different locations.”

For Susan, her foray into the art world was always hooked in with SAS. “When I was 15 years old, my high school art class scheduled a visit to Scenic Art Studios (SAS), to assist with painting a theatrical set being donated to our school. After walking in and seeing the construction and painting process, I was immediately hooked. I began going to the studio every day after school to work on the backdrop that SAS was donating. It wasn’t too long before I got a job doing basic clean up, office errands, and by the age of 23 I had worked my way up to being an 829 Scenic Artist. After working solely as a Scenic Artist for six years I started splitting my time between project management and scene painting. Today I am a full time project manager, but on occasion I still get to paint when we are slammed busy.”

It takes quite lot of support and collaboration to keep their art up to par throughout the years. “We always strive to keep up with industry changes and new and innovative ways of doing things. This is helped greatly by the unique designers for whom we paint. One of them will get an idea, but can’t completely figure out how to make it happen, and that’s when we are at our best; problem solving, sampling, and creating. Theatre, at its core, is about collaboration which is always intensely exciting and keeps the entire artistic endeavor moving forward.” With every piece there is a sense of power in the individuality in the artwork for Susan. “The best motivation is knowing that every day, every project, will be unique. I feel very lucky to have that sort of variety in my job. Each design comes with new challenges, the demanding load out schedule keeps you on your toes, and the paint crews we work with keep you entertained.” 

Within the craft itself, the exploration continues to evolve. “Our first love is always backdrops. We developed a technique where by using white Velour, the piece could be painted with dye on the face, backlit and absolutely glow. We are just about the only shop that can do a successful double translucent drop where you have an image on the front of the drop and a different one on the back. when the drop is front-lit, you see the front image, then, when backlit, the back image shows through and it’s pure theatrical magic. I’m sure there are things we haven’t tried yet and it’s always exciting to find that next new process.” Using the tools given to her in this medium keeps Susan satisfied. “I find different fabrics and materials, and the way they can be manipulated to be very interesting. While there are traditional methods for drop construction, I like to explore combining new materials with those tried and true techniques.”

Among their vast discography of work, it is hard to put a favorite on the list. “That is such a difficult question. Scenic Art Studios has painted over 300 Broadway shows, sculpted larger than life pieces, painted installations for famous artists, Chris Ofili being one of them, and recently, have been painting for major US ballet companies. Every one of these projects has their challenges. In general, I think I would say my favorites are the shows where the odds were stacked against us, where the difficulty factor was extremely high, where we weren’t given enough time and no one thought we could pull it off. For example, this past winter we were contracted to paint 88 backdrops in 56 days. That is an absolutely insane number of backdrops in an equally insane timeframe! That’s one-and-a-half backdrops per day! Not only did we pull it off, we produced some of the most beautiful drops we have ever painted. It’s an addiction getting it right and getting it out the door on time.” The same goes for Susan. “I honestly cannot choose any favorites. Every job has its pros and cons. Some have beautiful design but near impossible schedule, while others are more mainstream but because the schedule provides a break you get to slow down and enjoy the work more. While the goal is clearly the show coming together in the end, and everyone loves to see the stage filled with scenery, actors, and music, for me it’s really the process of getting there that is most exciting.” 

An ambitious idea for a performance down the line would be perfect for scenic lovers and fans of the art in theater. “With the discovery of the laws of perspective in the 16th century, and the advent of elaborate operas of the Baroque period, the scenery and scene changes became so elaborate that they would actually stage entire productions of nothing but scene changes, no actors on stage, just watch the scenes change. We are currently in a profound renaissance of technical change in the theatre and as nerdy as it sounds, it would be great fun for me to watch an evening of magical scene changes.” Make sure to always enjoy the surprising pieces is a motto Susan proudly lives by. “It’s more the unexpected that I look forward to. Some of the drops for ballets and dance groups that we have worked on have designs based on beautiful original artwork. They are not your standard designs, and the challenge for the painter is having to match the brush strokes and feeling of original artist. Those can be really stunning when realized on such a large scale.”

Not every step of that way has been easy for Mr. Forbes. “I can’t recall a particular piece that would be considered ‘the most difficult’, but I can recall a time which was the most difficult. Our shop in Cornwall burnt to the ground one Sunday, 5 years ago. We had drops on the floor, designer elevations in the shop, not to mention all our supplies. The core group gathered at one employee’s home as the fire was getting under control, and we just started making lists. ‘What do we need to start over?’; computers, desks, a new shop. This went on for hours. The great thing about this experience, was how the whole Broadway community came to our aid. It’s a tight knit group. Phone systems were donated, shops that are our competitors offered floor space. Shops we work with gave us office space and put down a paint deck for us when we found our new home. All our scenic artists came to help us paint the new shop. It was one of the most stressful times, but also one of the most heartwarming.”

Communication can sometimes make a piece rather strenuous as a scenic artist. “I would say that any time you are not picking up on exactly what the designer wants, is the most difficult. Sometimes it’s them not explaining it well enough, or providing a photoshop generated elevation that really needs to be interpreted, and sometimes it’s just you being stuck in your own head. On those projects it’s a wonderful feeling once you finally get through all of that, and the designer is smiling at the end of the project.”

While the art world continues to flex its muscles in different ways in 2017, Joe reflected on the changes. “I am glad to see that realistic painting: landscapes, still-life, and figurative work has been having a resurgence in the art world. I tend to be a realist as much as anything, because of what we teach in our school, The Studio and Forum of Scenic Art. We teach the theory of Trompe L’oeil painting which literally translates to ‘fool the eye’ painting, color mixing and one of our students’ first projects, copying a realistic landscape. These skills prepare a scenic artist to paint just about anything.” Art as a whole will never die in Susan’s mind. “I think that there will always be good art and bad art, and it all depends on your perspective. That’s the wonderful thing about it. Everyone being so connected allows for larger audiences, and the opportunity to see things that you never would otherwise. That’s a wonderful thing.”

In order to stay focused, Joe keeps himself busy with other mediums and colleagues. “My first art teacher preached that students should work in watercolor, because it was the medium that required the most thought and planning. He firmly believed that if you could work in watercolors, that all other mediums would be easier. As a result, I have a deep love for the simplicity and spontaneity of working in that medium. I actually belong to an art group called Outside-The-Lines Collective. It is a group of scenic artists that are for the most part, artists in their own right. We are each given a 12th of a painting to interpret in our own way using the medium of our own choosing. After a couple of months, we get together and put the pieces together. It is fascinating to see how each person has interpreted their piece and how they work as a whole. I’ve learned a lot about the different processes that everyone uses. We have had several pieces in group shows and are having our first solo show next year. It is so counter-intuitive to scene painting which is about thinking of ways to copy what you are given, an elevation, and how to translate it on a large scale so that it reads from 40 feet away.” Susan keeps exploring as well. “While there are others that are more beneficial for fine tuning the skill set of a scenic artist, I personally like pen and ink. I am also a huge fan of natural sculpture.”

Art is not his only source of relaxation for Mr. Forbes. “[I love] whitewater canoeing with my wife and best friend, Deb, on the Delaware River. I [also] love to cook. I do all of the grocery shopping and cooking during the week. Many days, when we have a lull at work, the shopping and preparing of dinner can be the most creative thing I do all day. I love the challenge of preparing a healthy, nutritious meal that my family will truly enjoy.” For Susan, inspiration blossoms in a myriad of sites. “For me it comes from many places. Sometimes the talent of the people I work with, sometimes being outside in nature and sometimes just a random passing moment. We have a farm, and my favorite day off activity is being there. It usually means that there is some kind work involved, but I find it relaxing and fun. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Summer endings bring that high demand for work front and center. “It’s August and the fall season on Broadway is the next big challenge. There are over 25 shows out for bid and we are already contracted to work on 15 of them. Each of those 15 shows will provide their own unique problems and challenges. You have to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint… You have to rise to the occasion and bring energy and creativity to each of those shows along the way.”

Jam on.


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