Robin Surber is our resident decorative painter and touch-up artist. She is tasked with making sure that the paint and plaster surfaces in the theatre are in tip-top shape – no small feat, since the theatre entertains more than 150,000 people each year. While many historic theatres “paint it and forget it” after a large restoration (often due to budget), we are dedicated to maintaining the beautiful work of the 2005 restoration. Maintaining the decorative paint on the walls is one of many ways we do that. We took a few minutes to chat with Robin about her fascinating work at the Tennessee.
TT: How did you get into art? RS: I was artistic from a very young age, and my family encouraged me to do what I was put on this earth to do. Art has always been a big part of who I am. I graduated from UT in 1987 with a Fine Arts degree and worked in a gallery for four years while still doing studio work. I began doing mural work and wall finishes in the early 90’s and traveled the country with designers doing both commercial and residential projects.
TT: How did you become our resident touch up artist? RS: Dave Ringley, Facilities Manager, contacted me in July 2011. He was looking for a local artist to repair the finishes’ minor nicks and scrapes, and he had asked Bobby Denton (local radio and sports personality) for a recommendation. (I did several wall finish projects for Bobby and his wife, Shannon.) I was beyond thrilled to be considered for the job. In the beginning, I came to the theatre three times a year. I custom color matched all the painted surfaces and repaired any plasterwork damaged through normal wear and tear. For the last four years, I have come to the theatre once a month. This way, it stays looking beautiful all the time.
TT: What is your process each month when you come to paint? RS: On the months that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra is performing, I touch up any scuffs and scrapes on their acoustic shell on stage. Dave provides a list of identified places that need touch-up. Then I go through the theatre, floor by floor, and look closely at the walls. I move through the theatre with a cart full of paint and assorted brushes.. The stage area always needs a touch up. Every tiny chip is repaired.
TT: Have you made any interesting discoveries while spending so much time with the details of the theater? RS: I am constantly amazed at how delicate yet well-built the theatre is. (Even if there are a few old cracks in the walls.) Also, the colors in the walls are repeated over and over in different techniques. I use this to my advantage. Oh, and I saw a bee painted on one of the walls of the left stairwell.
TT: What do you think makes the Tennessee such a special place? RS: Wow, I could go on and on about how special the Tennessee is. As a person who enjoys and appreciates natural beauty, I also appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the theatre. This building was built in 1928 simply for the amazement and enjoyment of us. I find myself marveling at the surroundings. I am also obsessed with looking at any spots I need to repair when I attend a show. It would be really difficult to find anyone to build a palace such as this these days.
TT: Do you have any particular memories of the theatre, outside of your work here? RS: I have seen some pretty awesome shows. Recently, I’ve seen Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Gregg Allman.
TT: What do you wish you knew about the artists who designed this place? Or if you could sit down with the artists who designed and created this place, what would you ask them? RS: I would love to ask how they thought on such a grand scale. Where did they find inspiration? Did the same artists do all of the movie palaces built by Paramount? They are all so different and use such a vast array of artistic elements. And, I would have loved to have watched the plaster artist at work.
TT: Are there any particular elements in the theater that really resonate with you as an artist? RS: The color combinations and the scale of all the elements. And of course, the use of gold. Everywhere. I am a bit of a crow and I am drawn to shiny things.
TT: When you aren’t painting at the theater, what sort of personal art are you working on? RS: When I am not at the Tennessee, I am in my studio working on my mixed media paintings. My art is regional, in a contemporary way. I use relics from what is local and I paint subjects that are familiar to us all. My website is www.robinsurber.com. I am currently thrilled to be doing nine large scale paintings for the new expansion of East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. Seven paintings will be installed in the cafe and two will be in the clinic. I have a large selection of my art at Bennett Galleries. They have been selling most of my work lately to Blackberry Farm.