Prepared for an uncertain future by earning an MFA degree in Art (Painting) and an additional MA in Visual Design (Photography) from the University of California, Berkeley by 1980, I turned to the theater for employment. As a contractual scenic artist, I painted sets for the San Francisco Opera, Ballet and other Bay Area theatrical companies. In turn my theater experience greatly influenced my studio art practice, in which I create stage sets, paint backdrops and employ numerous props and dramatic lighting.
With the portfolio of images entitled Stage Stills, I have returned to my roots as a scenic artist, but from a different perspective. Upon seeing the backstage of the theater at Scottish Rite Temple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I recognized the rarity of the theatrical collection. The 76 backdrops were painted in 1911 and the theater with its props and rigging has remained unchanged. With the generous permission and support from the Scottish Rite Masons, I began a two-part project: one documentary, the other artistic.
In the art portfolio of images entitled Stage Stills, I am responding to theatrical backdrops that were intended for masonic degree performances, but I repurpose their original intent. In my eyes they are viewed out of context and are material for fiction. I arrange the props, stage the models and design the lighting in order to create an image, much as I have done in my studio for years. The difference is that the scale is much grander and I must interact to the arcane visual references inherent in the theatrical past of the backdrops. These Stage Stills also take the viewer back stage, deconstructing the illusion that theater hopes to create and revealing the stagecraft. Theatrical sets are always created with speed and efficiency, intending to look good only from the distance of the audience. Up close they tend to appear crude and in the case of the Scottish Rite temple collection, showing the signs of over a century of use. The camera captures these cracks in the illusion. I have fallen down a rabbit hole into a theatrical fantasy world still intact.
In 2018 The Museum of New Mexico Press released a book on my photographic document of the Scottish Rite Temple and it’s jewel box theater full of rare backdrops. Publishers website An essay by Rick Hendricks, covers the history of the Masons in New Mexico. Khristaan Villela’s essay reveals the Moorish Rival Architecture of the building and Wendy Waszut-Barrett essay illuminates the scenic backdrops and how the Masons used them historically.