Painting with a Slanted Perspective

This term’s Theater 520 production, The Learned Ladies by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, has become a large-scale project for not only the directors, producers and actors, but for the set designer Bruce Bacon, Instructor of Theatre and Dance, as well. Bacon invited renowned artist Kim Nelson as the guest scenic painter for the production. Nelson has an impressive 15 years of artistic set designing on her records. She spent 14 years working for Northshore Music, working on freelance projects throughout her career, including work for Jordan’s Furniture. Her murals have been around the country and around the world. Nelson, though, has stayed in the area. She clarified, “I haven’t traveled a lot. My stuff is more traveled than I am.” Nelson worked in Tang Theatre starting on Friday, January 23, and came for the last time, Tuesday, January 27. She worked through the weekend, from nine to five every day. According to Bacon, the Phillips Academy Theatre Department was able to hire Nelson through a department budget. This fund is spent on outside help and was recently used to get costumes for dancers in the Nutcracker. Despite being unfamiliar with the play itself, the work Nelson has accomplished on the round–the selected stage type for The Learned Ladies–fits into Bacon’s vision. Nelson transformed the plain tilted rake (slanted stage) from an aging yellow, to simulate an antique globe, with soft blue and green hues marking different continents. Bacon did not personally know Nelson when he first hired her but knew the company, Northshore Music Theatre, where she worked. Bacon said, “I knew that they would have a scenic artist. Two years ago when we did the Merchant of Venice, I needed a little help. So I called them up and talked to her, and she said she would be happy to come on over and do some column work for me. So when I had this big project to do, I gave her a call.” Jokingly, Bacon said, “Because I can’t paint that well [I hired Nelson]-I know my limitations.” Bacon was the head of set design of Theatre 520’s production of The Learned Ladies, a satirical play revolving around the role of female education in society and academic pretention. Bacon said, “We went with the theme of education in The Learned Ladies, how the characters pretend to love learning. Even though nothing in the play talks about geography or anything like that, I thought the image of a globe had that sudden impact of learning.” Nelson’s job was to transcribe Bacon’s vision into reality. Standing in her daily work wear, a pair of chaotically paint splattered overalls, Nelson constantly refered back to the image of the globe resting in the crook of her arm. Her eyes were in constant motion, shifting back and forth between the stage beneath her feet and an image of the map taped onto a board of masonite. The job did not come easily. “I usually work very wet [with paint], and I can’t go very wet because I’m afraid it will drip because of the great slant of the stage.” Nelson continued, “Also, it’s very painful on your calves with all of your weight on your heels for a long time,” she shrugged. “So I take little stretch breaks throughout the day.” Although Nelson had a theatrical background in neither high school or college, she always kept art an important aspect of her life. “I’ve always liked to create things, so I thought I could create spaces, and that’s what I liked, and that turned to being this.” “I basically took a lot of art history,” she began. “You didn’t need to do a lot of art. I was taking a rendering course in college and the instructor told me that I really should take a painting class. She thought I would really enjoy it.” Taking a moment to reminisce, Nelson said. “And I decided that I wanted to paint really big things, but where could you paint really big things? And then I found this, and thought, ‘oh, I get to paint really big things…’” Nelson’s career as a scenic painter began when she was an intern at the Music Theatre, which then changed to a job at the theatre, where she has been working ever since. She asserted that the transition from interior design to scenic painting was smooth. “It was an easy transition. Basically, reading plans is a lot of what I had to do, so having theatrical blueprints kind of match what we used for interior design and architecture. Basically I pick a small rendering and I make it full size so if I can’t read that information…” Nelson laughed, then finished, “then I’m in a pickle.” Scenic painting is surely her passion. “I do love doing this. I like the creative process of using somebody else’s idea (sometimes), and making it into full dimension,” Nelson stated assuredly. “I like that transition and the collaboration involved with the work.”