Adventures in Fabrication: Mixed Media Scenery

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Guest Author Sara Herman


  As a designer and scenic, one of my favorite parts of my job is to solve challenges- to dissect a rendering into the steps that will achieve the end aesthetic.  I like to approach every show or challenge with a fresh mindset, pulling on past experiences if need be, but also being open to improvising a technique and letting a material speak to me.  I try to create environments where “Ah-ha” moments can thrive. This helped me solve a fabrication challenge in a recent show in a way that was economical, while keeping with the aesthetic. 

I’ve designed the summer show for Cirucs Juventas, a circus arts school in St. Paul, MN, for the past three years.  Their summer shows feature their most advanced students while also telling a story in a traditional theatrical sense through circus acts.

Rendering of Library Pillars with Viking knot detail

  This past year’s show was Nordrsaga, a re-imagining of a collection of Norse Myths featuring Thor, Loki, Freya, and Oden.  The show opened in an ancient mystical library and to define the space on the center circus mat, I designed 4 carved wooden pillars, one in each corner, to mark the perimeter of the library.  The pillars represented the inside and the outside of the library, two sides had snow build-up in the crevasses. The roots at the bottom of the pillars were part of an overall scenic theme that hinted to the Yggdrasil Tree; the tree of life in Norse Mythology.  All the worlds were connected through this tree of life.

I knew I would be using Sonotube as the base of the column; 16” diameter.  I also knew I didn’t want to carve the design into any material, so applying mini-cell foam seemed to me to be the best choice.  I get mini-cell foam from a company called TECNIFOAM out of Circle Pines, MN.  They are a local custom industrial foam company.  They sell 1/4” x 48” x 72”  sheets of mini-cell for a little over $10 a sheet.  Very reasonable!  Mini-cell foam is also super flexible and lightweight which was perfect for my project.  It also takes Jaxsan and paint very well.  Win, win, win.

Primed Sonotube with mini-cell foam applied.

I had a student intern, Leah Hughes, helping me for this project.  She pounced and cut out the mini-cell.  Using a box cutter works really well for tight curves, but mini-cell also cuts well with scissors (the material dulls the box cutter blade, change often). We used Foam Fusion glue to adhere the foam to the Sonotube.  It is a little pricy compared to other glues, but it’s designed for foams and with the tight circumference of the Sonotube, I knew I would need a strong glue.  Green glue works well with mini-cell too.  To save time, we used masking tape to cover the seams instead of putty.  After the glue had dried, we went back and carved out some of the outlines and faux wood splits.

Pool noodles were used to create the base of the capital. Mini-cell foam was used again to make the shingles on the capitals.  Then the column was covered in trowel grade Jaxsan. I made a wood graining tool out of thin, rigid cardboard because it could conform to the curve of the column well. 

Jaxsan grain detail

Now that I had a great column, the challenge was out of what to make the roots at the base of the column? We didn’t have the budget or time to carve foam.  I’ve used chicken wire before to create organic shapes, but even the small grid chicken wire is bumpy and screams “I am chicken wire!” to the audience.  I’ve also used pool noodles covered in muslin to create roots before with great success, but that process is also time consuming and has a long dry time.  When I’m stuck on what material to use on a step, I usually find it a good idea to meander through the aisles of a home improvement store looking for inspiration.  That’s how I stumbled on using aluminum window screen to sculpt the roots.  “Eureka!”

I had seen this material used once before on a show I charged to create see-through tree trunks, so I thought it was a good jumping off point to see if it would hold the root shape.  It ended up working really well, molding into twisty ridges and valleys.  One base took me about 20 minutes to staple the roots into place.  This technique will only work with the aluminum window screens and not the fiberglass (they bounce back and don’t hold shapes).  To make a knotty texture, I sprayed the screen with some expanding foam, pruning off the tops of the more bulbous shapes once it was dried. 

Applying elastomeric to window screen roots.

To make the screen opaque, I used Henry Elastomeric Roof Coating from Home Depot.  They usually have 5 gallon buckets on hand and it’s only $82.  It doesn’t come in trowel grade, so it’s more viscous than Jaxsan 600; it’s designed to be used with a roller.  It wouldn’t work great for raised texture projects.  In a pinch on a prior project, I have let a gallon of the elastomeric sit out without a lid to thicken up and that helps to make it more like a trowel grade.  It is very important to read the SDS before using this product (or any product).  The SDS link on the Home Depot website is not up-to-date, so go directly to the manufacturer.  Henry’s coating can cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation under the wrong circumstances.  It’s ecotoxicity is very high, so I never washed the brushes I used; just put them in the container for next time and let them dry out when I was finished.  It is also recommended to not get this product on your skin or clothes and to not reuse the buckets.  And like half the products we use in this industry, it does say it’s “suspected of causing cancer.”   

The elastomeric worked great to fill the wholes in the screen.  I tinted it so the paint job went really fast.  However, if I had had the budget, I would probably have gone with brushable Jaxsan 600 because it’s toxicity is low and none of it’s ingredients have been found to be carcinogens.  It’s also better for aquatic life, wet or dry as it has low ecotoxicity or water contamination.  Jaxsan is about $100 more than Henry’s, but I think the health and ecological benefits outweigh the monetary cost.

Two of the 4 finished columns.

After all the texture coatings were applied, the paint job was pretty easy.  I opted for glazy shadows and gold metallic highlights to catch the dancerly lighting.  The circus arena is set-up Alley style, so all sides of the columns had to be painted. 

Photo Credit: Dan Norman Surt, the fire giant, entering Asgard.

All-in-all, the columns were a fun, creatively challenging project. 

Mixing materials and using materials how they were unintended is one of the joys of our profession.  It pushes the industry into uncharted territory and allows us to make naturalistic art without spending hours and hours attempting to duplicate reality. 

Here’s to your next “Ah-ha” moment!






Sara Herman has been working in the Twin Cities as a scenic artist and set designer for ten years.  She has worked with dozens of companies, notably The Children’s Theatre (Minneapolis), The Guthrie, Macy’s Special Events, Theatre Latte Da, The Jungle Theatre and Circus Juventas. She is proud of her work as one of the founding members of the Guild of Scenic Artists and currently sits on our Finance and Fundraising Committee. 

Q Powers

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