Scenic artist Derek Stenborg, who was born in Mainz, Germany, and grew up in Houston, has Juilliard in his blood: his mom, Margaret Schwender Stenborg, studied voice here in 1965 and 1966 (his dad, also a singer, studied at Curtis). And the Juilliard connection is continuing: “I love that I’m living a full-circle moment at Juilliard, and I have even gotten my own kids, Jackson, who’s 12, and Linnea, who’s 8, involved in many productions here,” said Stenborg, who has worked at Juilliard either part-time or full-time for 20 years. After getting his B.F.A. from the Conservatory of Theater Arts at Webster University in St. Louis, Stenborg moved to New York City in 1992 and started working as a carpenter for the Juilliard scene shop and on the run crew for large operas. He still freelances as a scene designer and scenic artist in the summers. Among other projects he has designed restaurants; designed windows for Macy’s, Saks, and Lord and Taylor; assisted the set designers for Spamalot and Shrek the Musical; assisted the designers for Kanye West and Lady Gaga tours; and designed a one-man show called Rap Guide to Evolution. At Juilliard, he’s in charge of all finishing treatments of scenery designed for Dance, Drama, and Vocal Arts.
What is one of your favorite memories from your years at Juilliard?
Being on the run crew for the Maurice Sendak-designed production of Hansel and Gretel in 1997. It was absolutely gorgeous! I was in charge of operating the witch’s house. I made the eyes move around, blew smoke out of the nose, and then eventually I was in charge of the door that swallowed up the witch. It was an awesome job!
What job at Juilliard would you like to try out for a day and why?
Auditioning incoming students in any department. The kids coming to Juilliard are so passionate about their artistic disciplines. I’m sure their auditions are quite amazing, and to witness that would be inspiring.
What is the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I was an art director for the Ripley’s Museum on 42nd Street, and part of my job was setting up displays of artifacts: hissing cockroaches, matchstick armadas, shrunken heads—you name it. One day they asked me to display a lock of Elvis’s hair, which I had to curl very carefully without hair products because the lock of hair was worth thousands of dollars and they didn’t want me to damage it.
What’s the craziest day at work you’ve ever had?
Each day has the potential of being crazy—the workload and the production expectations seem to rise and get greater every year, so we have to make fun moments in our day to break up the seriousness. One day we drew a face on a bag of trash and took it around different places and took pictures with it. I also occasionally bark-out orders in bad foreign accents. This year it has been a Russian accent.
If out of the blue your boss said to take the day off, what would you do with your free time?
I would grab my family and head to a warm beach.
How do you balance your job and your artistic endeavors?
In some respects, there is no balancing: my work is my art. Because I do both scene design and scene painting, I have to be mindful of what I’m being hired to do. Occasionally I have to dial back design intentions if I am working as a scenic artist for a designer. When I design I take on the role of a puppeteer in some respects, which has the advantage of finding excellent craftspeople to bring the design to life. I feel very lucky that I get paid to be artistic and I enjoy it. I am constantly creating.
What other pursuits are you passionate about?
Years ago I began photographing different surface textures to create a visual database for my designing and painting work, and I eventually started focusing on “ghost signs,” which are best explained as advertising that was painted on a wall and faded over time. Sometimes I get lucky and see two or more advertisements on the same wall, like a double yolk in an egg. I will eventually edit my collection and put out a picture book.
What was the best vacation you’ve had and what made that trip so special?
I like exotic natural places. My wife and I went to Hawaii for our honeymoon, and seeing the lava flow into the ocean is indescribable, it is life in its purest form. Experiencing the California redwoods and the sunrise in the Grand Canyon with my wife and kids were both memorable vacations.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
The architecture! I appreciate the classical Art Deco buildings and I’m surprised by the latest Frank Gehry buildings. I’m attracted to interesting and artistically commanding structures and also like the idea of converting industrial spaces into domestic areas. And I like living in Brooklyn, where my apartment still has its original tin ceilings and prewar moldings.
What book are you reading right now?
The End of Illness by David B. Agus. To quote Walter Isaacson, Agus “views the body as a complex system and helps us see how everything from cancer to nutrition fits into one whole picture. The result is both a useful guide on how to stay healthy and a fascinating analysis of the latest in medical science.”
What might people be surprised to know about you?
That I ride my bike several thousand miles every year.