I first met Gabriel Barrera, the Scenic Charge Artist for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, when he introduced himself to the Guild at the 2017 USITT conference in March. Having people in common at his theatre, we easily struck up a conversation, and that is when I learned of his ‘Artivist’ role. Before we even knew that we would be creating “HDYGTFAJ” interviews I knew he had a great story to tell!
OSF then ran a great little piece about Gabriel and his activism work, and I made it a mission to learn more about him. I was able to meet up with him on one of his conference trips to Minneapolis, have a beer, and talk about how to be a better advocate in the field of diversity and inclusivity; completely forgetting to ask any of my interview questions. So, a great phone call later and I am happy to share his story!
Angelique Powers: How long have you been a Scenic Artist?
Gabriel Berrera: Since about 2000. About 17 years pretty much. In the early times it was a bit come and go, in and out, but yeah, most of the time I’ve been in scenic art 100%.
AP: Did you start off as a fine artist, or did you take the school route to learn how to be a Scenic Artist?
GB: I started out as a visual artist. I like to say visual artist because I’ve done commercial art, airbrushing, a whole range of different types of art. I did go to art school- Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and got my BFA, and started working in commercial art after school. I got into scenic art though a theme park. It kinda hooked me from there, and it took off into theater, and eventually where I am now.
AP: What theme park?
GB: Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California. I started working there as an airbrush artist, in the airbrush booth, totally separate from the actual park as one of those vendors that did t-shirts. But eventually I got a position to be a Scenic Artist in their Halloween Haunt, Knott’s Scary Farm.
AP: So that’s what hooked you? “Dude screw this airbrushing on a t-shirt, I want to paint caves, tombstones and mazes?”
GB: Ha ha, well, you know I did the airbrushing, but that’s when I went away to school for art in New York. When I came back and tried to make it as an artist I got into some commercial work, painting children’s furniture, and I was struggling to make it on my own in the art field. That’s when I discovered this position in scenic art and it just fueled me. It just fed where I wanted to go with all my skills, I found my place and where I wanted it to lead. Eventually I attempted grad school at Long Beach State, for scenic design, but the politics of the school didn’t work out for me because I didn’t fit the mold they wanted me to fit for their theater. I think if I picked the right school, put more effort into finding the right school, I would have accomplished that Masters, but I decided I’m gonna stick with theater, I like Scenic Art so I’m going to carry on doing that.
I then did some props work in over-hire positions, and eventually it was at South Coast Rep that I ended up getting my first experience with doing Scenic Art. That’s where I learned everything. The charge artist there Judy Allen took me under her wing and I learned a lot through her.
I worked more as a freelancer with various companies and local colleges, and that lead me to going to Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a Lead Scenic Artist. They didn’t have a Charge position at the time, and after 3-4 years they opened up that position and I applied. So long answer to the short question, becoming a Scenic Artist was a winding path.
AP: We find that with Scenic Artists it’s one or the other: Someone who trained to be a fine artist who falls into theater, or it’s somebody who started in theater for something else and decided they really liked painting. It’s always interesting to see; you were an fine artist first!
GB: Yeah, theater was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t even discover it till I was 27, 28 years old, but I definitely still pull from my strong visual arts roots to be a good Scenic Artist.
A.P Are you still creating your own art work on the side, or is that in a backseat?
G.B. I wouldn’t call it a backseat. I just utilize my time differently as an activist- what we call an Artivist. Helping young artists achieve their passion to become artists; whether it’s scenic art, or visual artist. I use my agency as the Charge Scenic Artist with the OSF as a conduit for younger artists that want or need mentorship.
When I can find time, I still try to do art on the side, but I feel a stronger call to mentorship and providing what I know, my wisdom, and what I can to offer young people is more important than what I can offer as an artist. To me that’s more valuable. It’s not as direct, but I feel more achievement for the world.
AP: You spend so much time as mentor to all these youths. Was there a mentor when you were a student that pushed you into what you’re doing now?
GB: I think there’s SO MANY. I think a lot of the mentors in my life have actually been women of color that moved me forward to where I am now. That’s where I acknowledge and reach to empower that demographic, those underserved communities, that gave me the privilege to be where I am now. I owe that community.
When it comes to Scenic Art, Judy Ellen really helped me with learning the skills and the basics of the industry standards and stuff like that. When it comes to really fulfilling who I am by tying into the work of the activism, the social justice work, I credit that to Carmen Morgan. She’s with Art Equity, and she really brought light to my purpose as an artist, and my role in providing social justice within what I do as a professional, so a lot of credit goes to her
A shout of course to my parents as mentors. And also Bill Rauch and Christopher Acebo, at OSF.
“”This may not seem unusual, but it is a result of years of commitment to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) efforts led by Barrera. Between 2008, when he was first hired as a scenic artist, and 2011, when he became head of the department, Barrera was the only regular employee in the Scene Shop who identified as a person of color. He encountered casual racialized comments, snubs, assumptions, jokes and countless other microaggressions. Barrera was determined to change both the face of the department and its culture. His years of commitment to ED&I and his reaching out to bring in young artists of color has led him to provide access to individuals from underserved and underrepresented communities and backgrounds. “To see how this works,“ Barrera says, “one should visit the OSF Paint Shop. We work and challenge ourselves to live and work by these values, and they improve our working relationships as well as our lives.“”
A.P. In the article that OSF wrote about you, it talked of when you interviewed to became the Charge Artist, you would also be pushing diversity and inclusion as part of your platform besides doing an excellent job painting all the scenery. Was requesting that scary, or did you just know that you were going to do that extra work anyway?
GB: No, I think because in a way that’s what the organization was allowing, those are the values of the company, I don’t think it was a matter of asking IF, but asking HOW and WHEN can I respond with that. I was kinda defined by that work already, I just needed the tools and the resources. That is what developed into working with Carmen, along with developing my skills as a Charge Artist. I just kept moving forward, and started by asking for resources to do more leadership roles putting myself forward. Going to the President of OSF, and say ‘you need to send me to USITT’ . And soon being part of this conversation right now, taking the lead on this issues, and a lot of these initiatives that we believe in. It fits like a glove being a part of this work. Meant to be in a way.
AP: Shifting gears into the other side of your work as a Charge Artist, can you speak to your leadership style? Do you see yourself more as a boss or as a captain and a coach? Or just a person on the team?
GB: All of those actually. I approach it very collaboratively, I tend not to micromanage. I come to the table and say here’s the rendering, here’s the work. I gather my crew, and I entrust my assistant to know what needs to be done. I just provide: to make sure they have everything they need. Most of the time I can’t even be on a project because I get pulled away too much and I can’t commit fully to a really complex project. I’m usually just doing the back painting, and bucket cleaning; a lot of the grunt work that needs to be done.
It’s not about saying I’m the Charge and having to demonstrate- I know I can do that stuff. It’s up to the team and even the younger scenics to learn how to eventually be in the spot I’m in. But I’m not always cleaning buckets, I’ll step up when I have to, or demonstrate what needs to happen, or if there’s a problem, and they don’t know how to fix it, I have an idea. Figuring out the logistics of how a process needs to be handled, that’s where I step in, or realizing the workload is too much and the crew wants to do something a certain way, and I need to say well that takes too long let’s do it this way.
It’s about taking the lead when I really need to take the lead, but empowering the crew to really problem solve and take things on themselves so they can eventually be charges and leaders themselves.
It’s about sharing and delegating that responsibility. At the same time I’m still managing and making sure the work flow stays smooth, and making sure everyone is respecting each other, making sure everyone is aware of each other’s identity, who they are, how they work. They bring a certain amount of emotional intelligence into the space to know when someone isn’t feeling good emotionally or physically and knowing how to manage that and take care of that person.
AP: I wanna work for you!
GB: It’s something I learned intuitively. Many times it’s working with the wrong people that help you realize what doesn’t work as a management style. What’s the opposite of that management style is the opposite behavior- what makes you feel better about wanting to work in the place? It’s not easy, it takes work to constantly check people’s offensive language or offensive behavior, and not pulling them out, but bringing them in, and saying “that wasn’t cool, I just want you to know that” It’s about making people more respectable.
AP: Is there a thing you love to paint? A style of project that you think, ‘Man, I know I’m supposed to share, but I’m just gonna keep this to myself?’
GB: I love to do the spray work. I grew up with an airbrush and anything that lends itself to that, like a smooth transition, or a fade, I just really like that.
AP: What’s your go-to spray gun? Do you like Devilbiss, Iwata….?
GB: I like the Iwata airbrush as my go-to. I’ll use the bigger ones- as long as they work properly without spitting or dripping. Any of the spray guns as long as they work well I’ll get down on those. It doesn’t happen often that I get to do that work, but when it comes around I love to do that type of stuff.
AP:Do you have a general upkeep tip for gun happiness and attitude problems?
GB: I just make sure they’re clean. That is the easy answer. Take care of your tools and they’ll take care of you. If you drop it, if you leave it out, or don’t keep it stored where it’s supposed to stay, and make sure other people do the same.
What we always do is keep a bucket of light soap and water near by, and when I’m working with an airbrush style gun, I’ll just put it, and the hoses into that bucket of water. That way the paint never dries up or whatever. I’ll remove the little bottle of paint, the little siphons, and I’ll also drop it in the bucket. But for the cup guns, that’s a different story. I’ll just wrap a wet rag around the tip so it doesn’t dry up, until I get to cleaning it.
AP: OSF has three stages, an outdoor Elizabethan style stage, and two indoor stages. What kind of paint products are your go-to for on the outdoor stage that you don’t need to use for the two indoor theaters?
GB: For the outdoor stage, we have an exterior paint that we always use on it, even for the floor, and we always use premium quality exterior latex that we get from the local paint store. But there are elements of course that need to get put into a set piece, depending on whatever show it is, and we’ll go ahead and use an outdoor varathane as a clear for outdoor, once in awhile if it’s something steel we’ll coat it with polyurethane, or a lacquer.
AP: Oil or water based?
GB: The oil based spray, clear lacquer. But not often, we try to stay away from toxic stuff. We also just go with Off Broadway. The paint seems to do well outside, still, it’s not like they gotta stay up for a year like at Disneyland. Sculptural Arts Coatings Plastic Varnish Flat is the other one we use. It’s pretty durable and it holds up to stuff. For the indoors we use a product from Staples called Diamond Safety Satin.
AP: How is it to paint over? Or do you guys get a new floor every time?
GB: We get a new floor, well it depends on the show. We use Diamond Safety Satin as a sealer or floor wax. It’s a Satin Finish, but you can also get it in gloss. The more layers you put on the more like glass it looks- it’s really nice! Even if you have a show where people are dancing on it a lot, if you do a cleanup and wipe away the rubber scuffs from the dance shoes, you can use a fresh coat of that, it’s like a new floor.
We usually use foam applicator pads to apply it, or sometimes we use a dust mop. Since we’re repping, we have to be careful about planning what goes after the next show.
AP: Now that you’ve been doing this for about 17 years, is there something that you know now about the art and craft of Scenic Art, or a piece of advice you would’ve wanted when you first started out?
GB: So many things! From mixing too much paint- that’d be a good one. You know when you first mix color, you’re mixing like a 5 gallon bucket of a color you only need a quart of? It’s a crucial lesson! You know, it still happens from time to time, but I mean just remembering to start with the color that the closest to what you need on the spectrum and then just tweaking with tints is the better way to go.
AP: Is there a question you wish I would have asked you, that I didn’t ask? And then, what is the answer?
GB: Huh. Let’s see. I would say how do we diversify, and help to create inclusive environments in our work.
AP: That’s a whole other series of articles!
GB: True! But it starts with just having the conversations. It’s simple. Letting people in; people that are the bosses, people that are the workers, and everyone in between. Start by having a conversation of how, and then answering it!
A major part of Gabriel’s ‘artivist’ work are his Scenic G Workshops. The Guild of Scenic Artists helped connect him with Rosco for one such workshop, that you can learn about here.
If you would like to learn more about his work and connect to talk about you can help with diversity and inclusion he invites you to his page ScenicG.
Gabriel also recommends the following two organizations for further explorations into diversity, equity and outreach:
Racial Equity Coalition “a grassroots, all volunteer organization provides a safe space for people of color and white allies to share stories, a mobilizing unit for community support and advocacy, and a task force supporting a campaign for a more Inclusive Rogue Valley.”
Art Equity ” Ultimately, the goal of the artEquity training will be to create a diverse, well-equipped cadre of national facilitators who can support equity-based initiatives nation-wide.”