No Fear - Scenic Artist Angelique Powers Shares Lessons of Forging her own Path

by Lisa Mulcahy
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Angelique Powers is known for her bold, all-encompassing approach to scenic art. She is also co-founder of the Guild of Scenic Artists, a community for scenic artists seeking knowledge, professional development, and new product info, as well as feedback regarding industry challenges as a whole. She’s committed to helping others develop their careers through sharing the expertise she’s worked so hard to accrue; her fearless approach to her work is admirable and fascinating.

As a charge artist, Powers’ credits include work for the Penumbra Theatre (with which she’s been associated for the past 10 years), the Minnesota Opera, the Park Square Theatre, the Ordway Music Theater, Theater Latté Da, and the Mill City Summer Opera. She holds an MFA in scenic art/design from the California Institute of the Arts; currently based in Minnesota, she serves as adjunct professor and staff charge artist at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. She works as lead scenic artist for VStar Entertainment Group, a position she’s held in the past at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts as well; her many and varied skills include project management, backdrop painting, faux finishes, drawing/layout, trompe l’oeil, textures, lettering, foam carving, prop construction, and scenic design.

Mastering Her Craft 
Powers love of theater happened instantaneously in the eighth grade. “I went on a school field trip to see a production of Brigadoon,” Powers recalls. “There was a scrim onstage—and of course, I had no idea what a scrim was. Then, the lighting changed, and behind the scrim, a town appeared. I said to myself, ‘Whoa! This is awesome!’ I was hooked—this cheesy musical showed me the power of a scrim! I saw how theater could create a magical world.” She started taking theater classes in high school as soon as she could, gravitating initially toward stage management duties. “At the time, I really liked being a stage manager, because you’re kind of the boss!” Powers says. “I thought that might be my career. I went to a tiny liberal arts college, now known as Rockford University, in Rockford, IL. There were only three tech majors at the school, including me. I learned a little bit about absolutely everything, and although I still wanted to be a stage manager, I was also getting training as a master electrician, and as a carpenter. And I started learning how to paint sets there.” A designer Powers knew at school needed help painting a show at a professional theater in town during spring break; she leapt in with both feet. “I found I really loved painting, and actually loved the work so much so that and decided I’d switch my career focus from stage management to scenic art,” Powers says. 

From the beginning, Powers took a pragmatic approach to her creative tasks. “I’m not naturally artistic,” she says. “I can’t draw the Mona Lisa and get it right. I’m more scientific than artistic in my approach to painting. I did some summer stock before graduating, got a fancy internship at Steppenwolf in Chicago, and just kept learning.” Powers’ growing skill set, and experience, next earned her a spot at CalArts. “I was the very first student there to pursue a masters in scenic art,” she says. “So, I had three years of one-on-one training. I learned how to communicate with designers, learned about different rendering styles. I could really focus on developing a critical eye. I could figure out, what makes good composition? I realized you can take a rendering and make it better.” 

After getting her MFA, Powers got a job at Cobalt Studios in White Lake, NY, painting backdrops. “Which was great,” she enthuses, “because I realized how much I still didn’t know! Then, I got a job with Susan Crabtree, the respected scenic artist and author, painting backdrops for Kenmark in Overland Park, KS. Nine months of mentoring from Susan! Mentorship is key for me. Every time I’ve gone somewhere to learn or work, I’ve found really great mentors, and learned from them not just technique, but competence; how to break things down.” Concurrently, she learned the value of professional independence. “This was the period I also learned to work by myself for 30 hours a week, because Susan was getting her doctorate,” Powers explains. “I learned how to manage my time.”

Raising Her Game
Powers had a strong desire to keep challenging herself, which led to her next position.”I worked at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where I could paint three-dimensional scenery full-time,” she says. “It was exciting, new, colorful, and an awesome learning experience! I worked with a charge artist and really learned how to be a manager.” Although she loved what she was doing, Powers was already thinking of the next step up. “Working in the way that I was, I knew I would always be an assistant—I was never gonna be the boss,” she explains. “I had learned as much as I could, so I decided it was time to focus on a freelance career. I’d only been married for three months at that time, but I made the decision to go to Denver for seven months, to work as a lead scenic artist. My husband was fully supportive.” And from there, she’s never looked back, becoming highly sought-after for production after production. 

Her current workload is demanding, but exhilarating. “For the last 10 years, I’ve worked with Penumbra Theatre, which has been my main ‘home’,” Powers says. “I learned how to manage two shows at once, and work with larger crews while freelancing, too.” She also turned her attention to her vast potential as an educator, first working with high school students on scenic art concepts. In 2013, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota. “I tell my students, ‘You don’t remember how you paint something correctly, you remember how to fix your mistakes. I want you to struggle, so you learn how to fix it’,” she relates. “As a scenic artist, you get to the point where you know what you need to do—it becomes autopilot. As a teacher, though, you have to explain the why and how. I look back at my own textbooks all the time, because I want to have the right words in my head; I break down what I do in steps for my students. What’s swell for me right now is the fact that for the first time, I have returning students. What I’m loving is getting to see how much my advanced students have retained. You teach, you watch them do it, and then you have them teach other students.”

Powers continues to constantly strive for maximum efficiency in her painting. “The way I work is right-brain,” Powers explains. “My approach is more logical, in that I think, ‘how do I reach this goal in my work?’ In terms of my painting, I think about economics. How can I make every brush stroke as important as it can be? There’s a phrase that goes, ‘A lazy scenic artist is an effective scenic artist.’ This is because to be effective, you need to learn to do two steps as one, in terms of time management and labor.” 

Laying Groundwork for the Future
Powers’ desire to give back to other scenic artists was cemented when she co-founded the Guild of Scenic Artists. “There was a sense of disconnection, because we as scenic artists end up working by ourselves all the time, especially in the Midwest,” Powers says. “People like Tina Yager and Lily Payne, two other Guild co-founders, brought me into the conversation. There was a technical need and an emotional need for connection. So, we got together, and said, we’ll build it and watch them come. There was a need among scenic artists to share technique and knowledge—the science of our work has changed drastically over the past 20 years. I remember my professors stressing the use of dry pigment, for example—now we use advanced house paint that sticks to metal. Also, I am a total geek about scenic art, and I wanted to be able to talk about it with others!” To this end, the Guild offers an online forum for technical support, a scenic information database, and a resource of development opportunities for members. “In terms of the Guild’s technology platform, the co-founders broke off into the areas we’re good at,” Powers elaborates. “I’m good at talking, and that’s why I took on our blog—that’s my baby! And I have to say, having feedback from our members has really helped the Guild grow.”

In terms of her own professional future? Powers considers herself up for any professional challenge—and there’s no doubt she’ll go after, and accomplish, many more career milestones. The true secret to her successful attitude? “I’m scared to fail,” she sums up, “but I’m not scared to try.”  

Lear more about the Guild of Scenic Artists  at www.scenicguild.org