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The Big Picture: Meet Workhouse Scenic Artist Joe St. Germain

His work has appeared at the Kennedy Center, the National Theatre and Ford's Theatre, among others...

Workhouse Arts Center artist Joe St. Germain has a new project -  painting golden-brown leaves. The work is full of intricate detail and concentration, and it's a breath of fresh air after his 48-year career as a professional scenic designer and scenic artist.

"The thing I'm most proud of is the journey," St. Germain told Patch. "I've been a college professor of scenic design, an artist and now I'm an easel artist."

St. Germain, 69, was born in Buffalo, NY, and spent his childhood in Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut. He abandoned a talent for cartooning in high school and briefly studied law at Lynchburg College before enrolling in an acting class. 

"I grew up watching 'Perry Mason' with Raymond Burr, and I thought taking an acting class could only help my career as a litigator."

St. Germain soon got a small role in a school production of "Our Town".

"I had shoe polish in my hair to make me look older," said St. Germain. "I had four lines, and on opening night I got a laugh and that did it. I was hooked."

St. Germain soon told his father, an aviation mechanic, that he was abandoning law school for a career in show business. 

"I liked building scenery, and I came from a family where the men worked with their hands," said St. Germain. "And it is an art form. For example, you're not making faux marble. You're making a painting of marble on a canvas that is suitable to be viewed from 70 feet by an audience." 

It was at Lynchburg College that St. Germain met his soon-to-be wife Carol. The couple married after he graduated in 1966, and moved to Springfield, where St. Germain commuted to Catholic University and took courses in scenic construction and design. Over the next decade he and Carol moved to Lynchburg (where he got a job teaching scenic design), New Orleans, Washington D.C. and New York City.

It was in 1976 that St. Germain decided that he'd had enough of school and that it was time to pit his acquired skills against his income. 

"In order to really do this well you'll have had to attended the school of hard knocks," he said. "At the end of the day it was all about networking and what you could do for the client. All of the degrees didn't matter. It was about what was being asked of you today, every day, and you are only as good as your last job."

St. Germain spent eight years as a full-time scenic artist and carpenter at National Scenery Studios before going freelance. He's painted sets for more than 60 shows at such venues as the Kennedy Center, The National Theatre and Ford's Theatre. Framed posters of his productions now grace the walls of his studio in building 10 of the Workhouse. One of them has a hand-written message of appreciation from Stephen Sondheim. 

"The Workhouse is outstanding. I'm in the midst of a large number of working artists," St. Germain said. "The quality of the studio space and the independence I have as an artist makes me feel very lucky."

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