Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 159 – My Comforter.

Part 159: My Comforter

The work of Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934) has been an inspiration to me throughout my career and is the muse for this tale too. For me, his work is a square in a patchwork quilt that covers theatre history atop fraternal sheets. I am weaving together four separate stories. The first of these stories examines the life and times of Moses, a subject near and dear to me since I created an index for his typed manuscript and scrapbook as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. The second explores the origin of Masonic degree productions by Scottish Rite Masons and theatre practitioners who owned late-nineteenth and early-twentieth scenic studios. The third tale recounts my personal journey as a scenic artist and scholar. The final story concerns the acquisition of the Fort Scott collection and my responsibilities as the one-time Curatorial Director for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.

Painted detail from the scenery collection created by Thomas G. Moses for the Fort Scott Scottish Rite in 1924. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

Here is a lengthy recap for those who have recently joined this online tale concerning my rationale for starting this manuscript. By the summer of 2016, I had supervised the removal and transport of a Scottish Rite scenery acquisition from Fort Scott, Kansas, to a storage facility in Bloomington, Minnesota. There it was to await completion of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center stage where I was too lead a group of individuals to restore the entire collection. Seventeen drops would be ready to display for the opening of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center on June 24, 2016. While on site in Fort Scott, I had also discovered some personal artifacts of Moses, left behind when he painted the scenery in 1924 that included a paint sweater, Masonic cap, paint brush and charcoal sticks.

Paint sweater of Thomas G. Moses left above the stage at the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas during 1924. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

By this point in my life I had studied Masonic Theatre since 1989 and restored over 500 historic backdrops in venues across the United States. My doctoral thesis was “Scenic Shifts Upon the Scottish Rite Stage: Designing for Masonic Theatre, 1859-1929” and historical scene painting remained my passion. As the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center’s Curatorial Director, I evaluated the Fort Scott scenery collection for possible purchase and transportation, estimated all of the restoration labor, provided timelines, assembled a crew, and ordered all of the necessary materials. This was just one small project of many that I had led during the planning and construction phase of the entire facility. I guided architects, theatre consultants, and interior designers to create a space that replicated a traditional Masonic center with a theatrical stage, c. 1914-1920.

 

My role as historical consultant for the entire endeavor began during 2014. This was during the same time that I placed the Winona, Minnesota, Masonic scenery collection into temporary storage to await the fate of their city council. My initial consulting agreement with the CEO of Minnesota Masonic Charities for work on the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center agreement morphed into a permanent staff position by June 1, 2015. Throughout the spring of 2015, the CEO of Minnesota Masonic Charities had repeatedly asked, “What will it take to get you on staff?” For months, he inquired, “How do you envision you future with us once the building opens?” After careful consideration, I closed my restoration business (Bella Scena, LLC), informed my clientele that I was unavailable for any future projects, and threw myself into the planning and construction of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Little did I realize at the time, but the CEO was simply acquiring my services at a 40 percent reduced rate during their final year of construction. I also had no idea that the CEO would use my restoration specifications and hire a completely inexperienced crew to attempt a restoration of the Fort Scott collection after eliminating my position during July 2016 – one month after the building opened to the public. In the end, the Fort Scott scenery collection was irreparably damaged due to inappropriate conservation techniques and the application of hot-melt glue.

I walked away from the entire endeavor a “sadder but wiser” girl, trying to forget everything that had occurred and remain positive. However, I had not expected the systematic erasure of my contributions while working there from 2014 until 2016. My 11’ x 22’ stained glass design was now credited to the stained glass manufacturer. My position as opening exhibit curator was reduced to the role of a simple freelance consultant. The list goes on and on. After throwing myself into the project for two years, abandoning all other work in lieu of this endeavor, it looked like I had accomplished nothing on paper. On paper, the CEO had paid me from a variety of sources and ended up employing me as the Curatorial Director though Minnesota Masonic Eldercare Services and not the actual Heritage Center. This convoluted paper trail of employment made me virtually untraceable when looking at key players in the planning and construction of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Hidden in plain sight and unaware of the endgame, I will never understand what warranted the CEO’s animosity toward me.

Initially, my spirit sank as I watched many in the Minnesota Masonic community, especially those that I had considered friends, look the other way as my position was terminated and my name dragged through the mud. Sadly, ill treatment by a Freemason in a position of power is not uncommon. However, the “turning a blind eye” from a fraternal family that I had helped for over two decades was extremely difficult to take. In the end, this project became a mere steppingstone on my path toward new discoveries in the shared world of fraternal scholarship and theatre history. In desperation for a distraction from my thoughts, I threw myself into theatre research and reached out to past clients. I was determined to make lemonade out of lemons and rapidly returned to the world of scenic art, design, and restoration. My six months of unemployment were a learning opportunity. I finally took the time to study some historical materials and make a few connections.

My husband, Master of Helios Lodge in Cambridge, suggested that I write a book. I refused on the grounds that I simply wanted to move onward, upward and away from Minnesota Freemasonry. I focused on my role as volume editor and contributor for the upcoming Santa Fe Scottish Rite book. It is slated to be published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2018.  I also took time transcribing the 1931 handwritten diary of Thomas Moses and inspecting his last theatre model – now held at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Finally, I set up a blog (www.drypigment.net) to share bits of technical information and traditions pertaining to historical scene painting techniques that I had discovered and documented over the years. I refused to be a victim of intellectual rape.

It was not until February 2017, while attending my husband’s conducting debut for a Singers in Accord event at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center, that I was forced into action. The prior year, my husband had approached the general director for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center with a proposal to pair musical selections with the scenic art of Thomas Moses. At the time, I was slotted to start the scenery restoration within the next few months and would have half of the collection completely restored by his 2017. Unfortunately, my position was eliminated and his journey became one wrought with frustration. I helplessly watched as the MMHC general director could not guarantee any restored scenery for his concert until the week before the event.

I sat in shock at the concert, seeing the extensive damage to Moses’ painted drops. Worse still were the comments by my friends who believed that I was responsible for this botched restoration. That evening, after the concert, I decided to take action and immediately distance myself from the unsuccessful restoration of the Fort Scott collection at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. I became obvious that I needed to speak out.

Initially, I attempted to take a positive spin on this tragedy and simply document my involvement with the Fort Scott collection, explaining its significance and providing an historical context. What started out as a modest discussion of the Fort Scott collection evolved after two major events that occurred during March of 2017. First of all, local Masons explained to me that the “official reason” given for my termination was my “lack of skills.” I was then credited, or blamed, for the selection and training of the crew that botched the restoration of the Fort Scott scenery collection. I immediately thought of a line written by the poet Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I refused to go gentle into that good night and decided to share everything online.

And so, I continue my tale.

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