In this article, there won’t be any revelations about Michael Jackson’s personal life. Nor will you be able to see the pictures of the sets. I can only show them privately. This is my attempt to explain how it came about that I did some work for him and what I learned from this experience. David G., Charles M. and I were once the three musketeers of a small business called Tree Time workshop, Inc. Charles Matz was an Art Director at the time who was looking for the right place to have his projects built and painted. He came with the contacts, we had the space. It was the right combination and worked out very well for three years or so. Like many people who are married and or best friends, we teamed up, worked very hard which enabled us to be in the right place at the right time. Tree time workshop no longer exists but during its time, we did sets for events such as the release of a Pink Floyd Album inside the Empire State Building, for the Fugees at the Intrepid Museum, for Reverse Angle productions -New York Stock Exchange Visitor’s Center Project.
When David and I learned from Charles that there was a bid for a set design for Michael Jackson’s single album cover, we were on. Many other companies offered to do it for free. Others would do it for a token. We put together a real bid, meaning like we would do for any client in the industry. Our company, Tree time Workshop was chosen because we were neither cheap nor expensive. Which was a lesson right there. Unless your company is two days old and you have no portfolio, don’t do anything for free. If you do, the clients won’t feel safe and will choose others who have some credibility because they are charging something for it. The same works for being too expensive. If people think that big names behave with a bottomless pocket attitude, think again. It is actually quite the contrary. I guess the accurate word regarding our bid is that it was fair.
So, we got the job! O, The hugs!! The jumping up and down hurting each other’s feet!!! The thrill it is to do this job is replaced in seconds by a hard question how are we going to do this project in so little time? Also, we had next to no money to buy the wood to build this for the next day. Our business was very big in size but not in business assets. It was 3,000 feet in a basement on Plymouth Street, in Dumbo. It was a hardcore looking woodshop which bathroom and ambiance would remind one of “ Silence of the lamb”. But we were proud of our place, very grateful for it.
Believe me: Dumbo in the 90’s is nothing fancy yet. No one in the streets, many rat tracks on the table saw when you come to work in the morning. The smells in this area of Brooklyn are a mix of the many garbage businesses, the one of the steel bridge and the industrial dust, the millions of bricks and stone pavement, the sheetrock and gas leaks. It was rough. But it was all so new to me, I liked it like that. I felt that I was living inside in a movie set, making sets and living in a loft on Jay Street we shared with two roommates, one weirder than the other. The street lights were very yellow at night and made the whole landscape look even filthier. You could park your pickup truck at night on Jay Street with your eyes closed.
Anyways, we got the” Ok” the day before the photo shoot! So, this is what it means:
It means that by the time you start building, you are already late. You forget food, anything that isn’t relevant to the project. I remember our poor big dog looking at us and eventually who could deduct by himself from our behavior, that we were in this groove again and that for a while his walks were going to be short ones.
When the set is built by the end of the afternoon, it is handed to the head of decorative department –meaning me. I hand the painting project to the painting team, which consists of …myself. My assistant does an assessment of the supplies available. She is quite a loyal and compromising fellow. You guessed it, it is also me.
This is lesson#2: Self-reliance.
If you have to deliver on your own, there is no time to ponder if you can or cannot do it. If you are green, “fake it until you believe it”. And in my case if you know what you are doing and what technique to use then really go with it completely. Here was the situation: I had to answer Michael Jackson’s challenge with the reproduction of the stoop in Charles Chaplin’s famous shot in “the Kid”. He was going to see it within hours and reject it or like it. We all know this famous picture of Charles Chaplin: Chaplin is seated with his face held in his hand, wondering what to do next. And a kid sits next to him. There is a mouse h*** under one of the two stairs.
The delivery is schedule for the next morning.
I had a Xerox picture of that shot in one hand and a decision regarding the technique to use in the other.
In front of me: an IKEA looking version of a stoop with two steps and a door. Buckets, paint, brushes and a car alarm going on and on in the distance. That’s what I had.
So no sleep ahead for me by the way but that’s OK. I decided to do this with paper mache. So I used plain newspaper, glue and water. I smeared the surface of this stoop all over. It looks of course awful because it is a work in progress. When you do something creative, there is always that middle point where the thing looks absolutely positively UGLY. I even paint on top of this wet bloody thing because I am running against time and the lack of.
There are rules you follow when you have time and you realize that you do the exact opposite when you don’t have time. Like having to wait for something to be dry before you can paint on it again…Then, I covered the whole thing with flat layers of the same paper. Colors started coming thru, unevenly. The glue under this paper cake dries alright but it is definitely doing its own thing -Which means that I don’t really have control here. Okay, so? Is it a good time to freak out?
Yes, indeed. Perfect timing for adrenaline! Specters of failure and fears fill the room with their hands folded in agreements with one another about how pretentious I was to do this. It is therefore time for some music here. Since specters don’t like rock and roll.
I think of turning on fans. While it dries 10 times faster (-and of course you wish it was 11 times faster) I occupy myself by mixing colors, rinsing the brushes and water bucket. It is a black and white job with many greys in between. I don’t have any fancy lens that would enable me to check my values. I have a Xerox of the photography and that it. Am I being too dark or too light? I keep on painting, texturing where I can without tearing the surface. I stare at the reproduction and my interpretation painting over and over until I am told I have to stop because the truck will be here any time now. I worked all night and I didn’t even know it. When I touch the surface, it isn’t dry, the finger goes in. It is funny now but not at all then…
It wasn’t even fully dry after the shoot!! At least the spot where Michael was sitting on was dry… So, we go to Sony Music Studios in the pickup truck, following the truck with our baby in it. By the time we get to Studio A inside Sony Music studios, we are just big balls of stress, ready for anything real bad to deal with within seconds. We meet the photographer there who is setting himself up. He is coming from California, and he is the sweetest man. This man asks us if we are hungry, all smile, calm, a nice guy. We are all surprised by this pre-shoot atmosphere. We were ready for yells and frustration, ready for war. Here is the guy eating sushi and offering them to us!?
Lesson #3: You can be nice AND be a professional.
This was my first encounter with someone who was at the top of his game and was very nice with everyone around him. Professionals know what they are doing, the nice kind sees no reason to be impolite or nasty to others unless there is a reason. What a blessing to work with really talented people!
The set is installed. The photographer lines up his camera with the set. A great silence sets in as he focuses on it. I brought my colors for touch ups and paper, many things in order to be ready to fix anything on site. I am there standing, ready to go in the frame to fix hues and values for him. The photographer turns to me and tells me I am dead on. It is just perfect. My heart sinks as it was ready to explode so it registers the information but I get the same rush of adrenaline I would if he told me I messed up big time. It is indeed funny how things work. So everything is fine, then. I didn’t have to go back in that day. I stayed on standby in the street, just in case. Which enabled me to see how involved it is security wise for M. Jackson to get inside a building. Charlie came at one point to tell me that Michael loved it, asked a lot of questions in order to understand how I did it, who did it and what my name was. The set was actually broken into pieces after the shoot, put into a crate and reinstalled somewhere on his propriety. The satisfaction you get from a job well done and appreciated is already precious but if Michael Jackson says it, it is quite something.
Since we had done a good job, we kept being asked to do things for him.
We also provided custom mirrors and props for rehearsals for him and his dancers inside his hotel suite and inside the studios. And a set for a Middle Eastern pilot show. That’s when I actually saw him in person, for a few hours. He was right there in front of me and it was as we all know him: a very shy and sweet person.
As the years went on, I realized that it had become difficult to talk about my experience as I had to be prepared to hear the same comments about the trials, the scandals, over and over. One grows tired to hear the same things especially when this is not what I was trying to talk about. If I said something positive about him, I would be told I was trying to defend him so I stopped talking about it.
With his death, I find that people are more inclined to talk also about his talents. So, here is my account of what I experienced and saw for myself. I agree that the man was a genius, a professional AND very nice with everybody around him.
July 5th, 2012
Stephanie Corne is a muralist, and fine art painter in New York City. You can see more of her work at her official website at www.stefo.com.