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Robin Surber



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By Gay Lyons

Photography by Katharine Emlen 

As the Tennessee Theatre’s touch-up artist, Robin Surber makes sure the paint and plaster surfaces stay as beautiful as they were when the restoration of the theatre was completed in 2005.

Robin visits the theatre once a month, rolling her cart of supplies throughout the space. She consults a list provided by Facilities Manager Dave Ringley of areas that need attention.

“It generally takes me six to eight hours,” said Robin. “Sometimes I have to come back. I go through the theatre, floor by floor, and look closely at the walls. If there’s something the size of a pin head, I have to touch it up. If I can see it, I’ve got to touch it. Sometimes I have to put on my glasses to see it.”

“Most of the damage is near the stage,” she said. “The acoustic shell that goes behind [the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra] gets really banged up.”

“I haven’t had to touch up anything near the ceiling yet,” said Robin. “If it needs it, we’ll use a crane.”

“The colors are as close to the original as can be,” said Robin. “I had to come in and custom match all the colors. I discovered that a lot of the same colors are used over and over in different ways. There are lots of reds, blues, silvers, gold and greens. It helps that I don’t have to have a hundred paint cans. A lot of the surfaces have a red glaze that ages it down nicely. They wanted an aged look.

“One of the nice things about working here is that everyone loves working here. Everyone’s so invested in taking care of [the theatre] and loves being part of it. You don’t find many jobs like that anymore.”

Restoration is not Robin's specialty.

“I have painted a lot of murals and wall finishes,” she said. “I did all the work at Chesapeake’s downtown. I did a lot of work in Florida and southern California. If my murals needed touching up, I’d go back, but I don’t generally touch up someone else’s work.”

“I mostly create mixed media paintings in my studio,” continued Robin. “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. I did a large commission for East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. I have a large selection of art at Bennett Galleries. They have been selling most of my work lately to Blackberry Farm.”

Some of Robin’s most recent work was commissioned by Laurie Dover during decoration of the Hyatt Place, just across Clinch Avenue from the Tennessee Theatre.

“Laurie called and said she wanted to use some of my work in the main public area,” said Robin. “She wanted something with a lot of details people could look at.”

The resulting piece hangs across from the elevator.

“I wanted people to have something to look at while waiting for the elevator and to see something different every time,” she said. “I used found objects, including a postcard of the old Farragut Hotel.”

The birds in the bar at Hyatt Place are also Robin’s work.
While Robin spends the majority of her time creating her own pieces,
she loves her time at the Tennessee Theatre.

“It’s the most beautiful theatre we have in the state. It’s a privilege
to help keep it beautiful.”

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