We all start somewhere. We’re going to hear from the people who kept at it, and wound up somewhere unexpected and awesome. In this interview, we’re hearing some of that wisdom from Scott Gerwitz.
Scott was my first “real” Charge Artist right out of college, when I was lucky enough to be his intern at Steppenwolf Theatre in the spring of 2000. Right or wrong, he encouraged me to go back to school and learn more about this crazy world called Scenic Art. He continued on in his winding career path from theatre, a bit of teaching, and then into TV with the Oprah Winfrey Show. He now works as a USA 829 Union Scenic Artist, and in-demand muralist and sign painter. We were able to sit down and chat when he traveled to Minneapolis for a mural job.
Angelique Powers: Have you finally settled into just one job?
Scott Gerwitz: I like to joke with my father that I’ve never had a full time job. I’ve freelanced since I got out of grad school.
I still work for Loyola University. That’s my longest job- I’ve been there since 1999. I’ve painted there, taught the scene painting class a few times, and still paint 3 to 4 shows a year there. I don’t actually teach the scene painting class, but I still paint the shows with students. It’s great. The pressure is lower, so you can spend more time with the students, helping them learn and see what this world is.
I was at Steppenwolf for 10 years, but it still wasn’t a full time job. I was considered ‘regular part-time overhire’ so I still needed to freelance during my time there. Near the end we had a failed union fight, and that just made things kinda uncomfortable. I loved working there, creating beautiful scenery with good people, but I knew for my mental health it was best for me to move on.
That’s kind of when The Oprah Show opened up for me. I was offered a gig to help paint and set dress a special show and I started to work there in about 2007.
So when Oprah ended in 2011, that space filled in with a company that I started doing murals and faux finishing stuff, which has really morphed into a lot of restaurant work. It basically started with the past wife of the old assistant technical director at Steppenwolf, Pam Valenta. She was a restaurant designer, and I knew her socially, and she’d ask me, “hey, can you do this?” I really owe my business, Morpheus Murals to her.
AP: Did you enjoy working in TV doing a talk show?
SG: Well, basically “Oprah bought my house!”. But no, not really, because I was always the last person called, so when I was working freelance everywhere else, I would have my phone set to a really annoying noise when the person from Oprah would call me. I’d get this really annoying “EEEH EEEH!” thing. And I’d think, “I’m not going home tonight.” It was a lot of really late nights.
AP: What was the most fun thing you painted for Oprah?
SG: Aside from the airplane project that you can read about here, my favorite was when we recreated Mary Tyler Moore’s set. The designers went frame by frame with old shows, creating the world. It was very theater like- you had a story. The original cast was coming, it was a really fun show.
AP: When you are sent into a restaurant to paint, how do go from a design to a painted wall?
SG: Most of the time I’m still working with designers, so I’m working with a rendering. I work in Illustrator to plot out the lettering. A few years ago I was lucky to find an old electric pounce machine. But sometimes it doesn’t always go as planned.
Like this week I was doing something for Giordano’s here in Minneapolis, and the size of what I thought I was doing was too small. It was seven o’clock in the morning, and the restaurant opens at 11. So I had to run over to Kinko’s. That’s why I always bring a pounce wheel with me whenever I go somewhere- the one with the big spikes.
AP: What other things are always in your tool kit that we wouldn’t expect?
SG: My iPod. It’s not really a working tool, but I work alone a lot. You know, the whole reason I went into scenic art from scenic design, was the whole working in a shop, working with people. But now that it’s a lot of restaurant stuff, a lot of what I do is traveling around, working by myself. Most of my workmates are podcasts- I listen to weekly podcasts that become my little friends in my ears while I’m painting up by myself at 3 in the morning somewhere.
AP: So what was an early job that made you think, ‘This is the job for me?’
SG: That’s a hard one.
So, my progression: I started as an actor at Western Michigan University. I know, funny. I quickly realized I was terrible. The technical director knew I could use power tools and always tried to talk me into coming in to work on the sets. I really enjoyed that work, and it funneled me into design – I thought I was gonna be a set designer.
When I went to grad school at Brandeis, I started as a designer and I realized again that it wasn’t the path for me. I enjoyed working in the shop and I enjoyed working with people, being hands on. Instead of being bent over the drafting table, I enjoyed having a six inch brush in my hand.
Karl Eigst and Bob Moody were my main professors. They pushed me into focusing on just scenic art, and that was the greatest thing that could ever happen. Bob Moody is why I went to Brandeis. In undergrad, my drawing skills were not the best. I knew that was something I need to address, and I knew that Bob was a fantastic drawing teacher.
AP: What did he teach you?
SG: I think I remember the point when I was able to SEE. Because drawing is about seeing, not about moving your pencil on the page.
We were doing a show, Skin of Our Teeth, and the design had a bunch of large panels of blown up black and white photographs of 1940s Hollywood actresses and stuff like that. Blowing up, you have to get all the little granules of the photograph, and it’s all monotone, black and white, spatter and sponging and airbrushing and all that good stuff. So, Bob gave me a few of those panels to do myself. I was really struggling.
I stayed late one night to 2 o’clock in the morning working, and I was pretty proud of it. The next morning I had a rendering class with Bob, and as I walked in, he’s like, “You got it! Come look at this!” He was super excited, he saw that I finally saw, I got it. I crossed that barrier. No– I smashed it. I still have that painting.
AP: Who else was a mentor to you?
SG: In undergrad, Greg Roehrick . He passed away a few years ago. First he inspired me going into the theatre design world, but he also taught me my work ethic. He pushed us to do all that was necessary to finish the job (and many times sacrificing sleep to get that set ready for tech). Which introduced me to the all-nighter. That work ethic, and many times all-nighters, are needed for the life of a freelancer- you gotta paint three or four shows in a week. You need to be able to work an insane amount of hours and still be able to keep your quality level at it’s best. I admit I do sometimes have the help of a product my wife found – the “Zoom Ball”. It is so much better than energy drinks. It is a blend of a bunch of ingredients and spices that naturally have caffeine. It doesn’t make you crash from all the sugar and crap you get from those energy drinks.
AP: What was your first job, and how much did you get paid as a scenic?
SG: During grad school, for one of the summers I worked with The Idaho Shakespeare Festival. The artistic director that hired me told me that it would probably be a low key job, like during tech maybe 40 hours a week. I think it was maybe like 300 dollars a week.
When I got out there, I found a completely different situation. I’m working like 80-90 hours a week. After the second or third week I went into his office, hoping to get maybe like another hundred dollars, He says, “Well I’ll offer you time and a half after 40.” And I’m like “OK!”
Needless to say they didn’t bring me back the next year. But that was a good learning tool for me: financially stand up for yourself. There’s so many painters- and young painters- I’ve worked with that are scared to ask for raises. We are all in this for a living. We should stand up for ourselves. It is hard work to be a scenic artist, and not just anyone can do it. Ask for that raise! And what is the worst that can happen? They might tell you they can’t afford it now, so ask them when they can. Ok, I will get off my soap box now.
AP: What do you know now about your job that you wish you knew then?
SG: I hate to say this out loud, but controlling my temper. I used to be pretty hot-headed. Back when I was at Steppenwolf I had an intern, Melissa Rutherfoord, who would always make fun of me for losing my temper. It helped calm me down, but also helped me see how ridiculous it was. Learning how to deal with that in a diplomatic way, to solve the problems instead of creating more. And you know what, it’s so much easier now, and maybe it is because I’m older…?
AP: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
SG: I think I got into theater because I enjoy creating a world, telling a story. Certainly at Steppenwolf, that was exactly what theater is- they do great shows. As I’ve worked less in theater- a little while at Oprah, and a lot more restaurant stuff, there’s kind of less of that. Working at Loyola has taken some of that place to be able to work with the young students. They’re not bitter, their life is great,they are still excited.
AP: What’s one skill you use all the time now you had a hard time getting a handle on at first?
SG: Besides drawing, I think lettering.
AP: But your lettering is phenomenal- I’ve seen your lettering! And you do it over bricks and it’s perfect!
SG: That’s cause the line of the brick breaks up the view. So if you mess up you kinda don’t notice it. You probably shouldn’t put that in there.
AP: I’m putting that in there.
SG: But lettering was always a skill I had trouble with. When vinyl letters came out I was super excited I would never have to letter again. But working in the restaurant world the last 4 or 5 years, hand painted signs, hand painted lettering- it’s become the big thing everywhere. It still feels like a new skill. At first I would just use artists brushes, and then I was like, “OK how do these sign painters really paint?” They use the really long bristles, and it’s really exciting to be able to take those long brush strokes and just **wsssh!** in one little turn.
It’s kind of like a sniper. It’s a technique I only just realized a couple of restaurants ago when I had to paint on smooth drywall creating super clean lettering. I fell into a pattern; as I was making a stroke, I was breathing OUT. Breathe out, pull the stroke.
It worked for me, and helped me focus. I was kind a sad when I was done with the job, I wanted to keep going!
AP: Is there a job you’ve had that made you think about quitting the business?
SG: Cleaning the Steppenwolf paint trap. (edited out was twenty minutes of us reminiscing about that horrible trap) But no, really, I don’t think so. Freelance has helped me avoid that. What’s great about freelance in the broader spectrum, you’re only working that place for 3-4 weeks. You may not enjoy the shop, or they’re way behind, but I know the next place I’m going they’re different.
AP: If I was in charge of hiring you a new intern to travel the county with you and pounce your papers, what qualities would you want someone to have to work alongside you?
SG: I think drawing is the most important. As long as you can draw, someone can tell you the technique, show you steps one, two, and three, and you should be able to work it out.
But it’s also about getting along with people. I’ve worked with some fantastic artists but they weren’t fun to work with.
AP: When you’re painting in restaurants, is there a product that you love to use for longevity, or sealing your floors? Are they different from what you use in theater?
SG: Not really different. Especially now in restaurant design, they want that worn-away look, old world, something that looks like it was painted dozens and dozens of years ago type of style- you don’t really have to worry about the upkeep as much. So if something isn’t going to last quite as long, it will enhance the look of it.
The newer product that I didn’t really use in theater is One Shot, for when I’m doing real lettering on a smooth surface (not on brick, which is a little looser). One Shot is oil based, but it’s like the perfect consistency, one coat coverage. It’s an amazing paint.
I also work with oil-based paints now a lot less than I used to. I always sealed with oil-based polyurethane, but now water based polys are much stronger. My go to is Ben Moore Stays Clear. It levels out really well, and you can roll it with a microfiber roller. That might be one of my new favorite tools actually. When we were getting the floors refinished in our house in Chicago, I knew that was a job I could probably do- but I’m gonna hire someone who knows exactly how to do it right. So when I saw the guy rolling out oil poly and not striping through with a brush, I was like, why are there not bubbles?? And he was like, the microfiber roller cover! Oh my god, they’re amazing!