Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 13 – Getting My Hands Dirty

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her thirteenth post from February 26, 2017.
 
Part 13: Getting My Hands Dirty
 
The rigging crew would later admit that no one knew what my contribution would be prior to the project, even Ty Prewitt, owner of BellaTEX. Would I sit with my camera in the auditorium slowly photographing the removal process, or would I actually get my hands dirty? It is important to understand that when I was went to Fort Scott, my directive was to solely supervise and not to help out as a “common laborer.” That was a directive by the CEO.
 
It is important to understand that throughout the duration of my career I always worked alongside my crew, never expecting anyone to perform a task that I wouldn’t do myself. I realized long ago that this type of attitude and a general willingness to get one’s hands dirty had a positive impact on any work environment. Showing great appreciation for your staff and lending a hand is such an easy thing to do and it always pays off in the long run.
My hands after an hour of handling the Fort Scott Scottish Rite scenery on site. Although I often wore gloves, not ever task could be accomplished while wearing them. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, November 2015.
In addition to this instilled work ethic, I was raised to conquer obstacles and take pride in my work. Therefore, when I encountered the thick layer of contaminants coating the scenery and set pieces, I couldn’t ignore it.
Removing loose contaminants on Pepper’s Ghost unit in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett from November 2015.
Removing loose contaminants from the backside of a drop in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett from November 2015.
Removing loose contaminants from the backside of a drop in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theater. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett from November 2015.
It is possible that others would have ignored the dirt, rolled the drops, shipped them, and dealt with the consequences later. That was not an option for me, so I tackled this initial obstacle, knowing that it would add many hours onto the project in Fort Scott.
 
We covered both the stage floor and auditorium floor with heavy duty plastic to catch the majority of the dirt that fell off of the drop as it was lowered to the floor and stripped of both battens and hardware. I purchased both dry mops and wet mops to clean the plastic as often as possible so that dirt from one backdrop, wouldn’t contaminate another backdrop. We also occasionally replaced the plastic sheeting.
 
Then, the drop was placed on the auditorium floor face down. I used my handy Festool dust extractor to remove the majority of loose contaminants with its special HEPA filter. The drop was then flipped face up so that I could vacuum the loose particulates from the painted surface. This initial cleaning was to protect the painted surface during shipping and limit the amount of airborne particles in the space on site.
 
Dirt and pigment would continue to dust off during the rolling and transportation, necessitating additional vacuuming and extensive cleaning with archival sponges before any necessary repairs or restoration could take place. The vacuuming for each drop in no way made the surface either completely clean or free of contaminants. After vacuuming both sides, it took four of us crawling across the floor on our knees to loosely roll the 24’x36’ long drop. This loose roll meant it could be carried down the winding staircase to the first floor where it would then wait to be rolled onto 25’ cardboard tubes.
 
The drops couldn’t be rolled immediately after vacuuming on the second floor as the winding staircase could not accommodate a 25’ rigid tube. This was the process prior to rolling, wrapping, and loading each drop onto our shipping truck. Multiply this procedure ninety-two times.
 
The need for any additional cleaning prior to restoration was a point of contention with the CEO as I had already vacuumed each drop in Fort Scott. Even after several conversations, I could not convince him that this initial cleaning was not sufficient. Nor would he believe that the drops had to be stabilized or any repairs made prior to hanging. It was impossible to convince him that the dusting pigments and other surface contaminates were dangerous to both the performers on stage and the audience members alike.
 
When I saw the drops hanging at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage center during February 2017, there were still sections of the original netting attached to the drops and contaminants were visible. My heart sank as I wondered if anyone had ever been told of the dangers that I described to the CEO and the general director.
 
To be continued…

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