Behind the sets

In honor of Charles Lisanby’s birthday, which was yesterday, and the opening today of the new exhibition of the Lisanby Collection, Be the Change intern Tyler McAvoy (’12) writes about his experience in the museum and the impact of Mr. Lisanby.

Charles Lisanby receiving one of many Emmy awards.

Behind the sets

by Tyler McAvoy (’12)

When I entered the Skyline Museum it was utterly quiet and empty; save for the light rain hitting the window, nothing could be heard.  The museum had been open for only an hour, and when I signed in at the desk I realized I was only the second person to experience this new display since it officially opens today. Donned with an iPad with a surprisingly helpful virtual tour app, I shuffled my way through the exhibit, slowly grasping who Lisanby was: he was an artist, a man who had been through the early throws of night and daytime television, one who had watched the industry move from black to Technicolor, survived flops and failures of television shows, and lived to tell about it.

Lisanby brought set design to a new artistic level when he began sitting in on writer’s meetings so that he could craft the set to that particular show. This was revolutionary. No longer were sets just backdrops to boost the believability of an actor’s performance; now sets were part of the story, augmenting it, and sometimes even being the focus of a plot.

Though many of the shows that Lisanby worked on have faded into obscurity by now (which really describes a large part of early television), his infusing of art into set design really changed the industry standard.  This can best be understood by the fact that Lisanby was an artist first, and set design was a job that was handcrafted for his style.  Throughout the gallery there are several of Lisanby’s more artistic pieces, such as self-portraits, which echo his set design: clean lines, minimal use of shadow and a great ability to make subjects feel like they’re something of substance.

This is in great contrast to the imperfect, yet always intriguing works by Andy Warhol that make up much of the exhibition.  As I soon discovered to be a central theme to the exhibit, Lisanby and Warhol were close friends throughout the 1950s and would often draw together while they were both struggling artists in New York. Warhol was an advertisement illustrator, Lisanby, a set designer for small shows and productions, and both were immensely dedicated to their art. Interestingly though, they both seemed to play off each other; Lisanby would mimic the style and techniques of Warhol, yet retain his clean lines, whilst Warhol would maintain his roughness, while drawing things that Lisanby would find interesting. You can kind of see the obscurity that Warhol so loved in some of Lisanby’s later set designs, especially in the choice of colors.  One particular design reminded me a lot of the movie Rear Window; a close cloistered community in a tall, sardine-packed housing complex, that still conveyed a sense of warmth.  Everything in the sketch seemed kind of angular and off, yet not so much that you’d call it uncomfortably expressionistic. Even though this design came years after Lisanby’s time with Warhol, you still get a sense that he pervades the piece, defines the lines and the colors.

We often don’t think about the people behind the sets that we see on television. We often take that kind of thing for granted, not realizing the hours and talent taken to create a backdrop or prop. Yet, Lisanby focused on these things and found them fascinating. He took the arbitrary object of a set and redefined it as a new canvas for art. 

Lisanby was a key member of the production army that made up early television, and if anyone has any interest in those earlier years, I highly recommend taking a stroll through the collection. Even if you aren’t a fan of the whole realm of classic television, the numerous Warhol sketches and prints make this a worthwhile adventure.

To learn more about the new Lisanby exhibition, visit the JMU home page


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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