Thursday, September 27, 2012
Dottie May Youells doesn’t know how to paint small.
As a professional scenic painter who was trained at Juilliard, her specialty is creating backdrops, panels and sets for theatrical performances.
“People always say to me, ‘You should sell your art,’ but I wouldn’t know how,” she said. “For this production, a small piece is 24-by-8 [feet].”
Youells is currently working on the set of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s upcoming production of “Antigone,” leading the set painting and teaching students how to paint sets for their own productions.
“I love the process,” she said of scenic painting. “I’m always asking myself ‘Are the students engaged and learning things? Are they walking away with skills?’ The way I view it is [that painting is] a gift God has given me and so many people have mentored me, so it’s my turn to give back.”
Before she transitioned into scenic painting and long before she moved to the Scenic City, Youells worked as a kindergarten teacher. Growing up, her daughter was involved with dance and Youells often found herself working with costumes for dance productions.
“One day I saw ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and knew I needed to be doing theater,” she said.
For 13 years after that revelation, Youells taught kindergarten and assisted older students with theater. Once her children were finished with college, she decided to pursue scenic painting full-time and was accepted for an internship at Juilliard.
At that point, Youells had never taken an art class and was 46 years old, but it didn’t matter. Studying at Juilliard was her dream and afterward she was able to pursue scenic painting full time. She relocated to Chattanooga in 2005 with the help of an ArtsMove grant when her daughter, who lives here, found out she was pregnant.
Since moving to Chattanooga Youells has worked with Chattanooga Christian School, the Chattanooga Theatre Center, Covenant College and is now on staff with UTC.
In her opinion, some of the beauty of scenic painting comes from its larger than life scale.
“You have to think really big,” she said. “And the techniques are almost like dance. You have to move as if you’re dancing through air.”
Scenic painting is also a forgiving medium since colors and patterns can always be toned down or softened by applying another technique, said Youells.
“It’s a lot like pointillism,” she said. “You have to think with a lot of depth.”
When asked if the temporary nature of her work bothers her, Youells said a director once compared sets to sandcastles since they are built beautifully and then washed away. She said she likes that metaphor, but the most enjoyable part is working with students.
“I never thought I would be working with college students,” she said. “Big kids scared me a little bit, but they still need to be directed and I feel like I can direct them. I’m having a lot of fun.”
In addition to working with sets at UTC, Youells is also the head baker at The Public House.