An artist’s journey in the movie biz


Michael Spader, an on-set movie painter, is using his time off in between movies to focus on his other love — oil painting.

But with the number of movie gigs coming to the state dwindling, the landscape artist is switching his long-time movie career into his hobby.

Abigail R. Ortiz-News-Bulletin photo: Landscape artist Michael Spader uses a technique called “en plein air,” which is a French expression used to describe an artist who paints outdoors. Spader does this as he paints the Sangre de Cristo Mission in Los Lunas from an empty parking lot across from the church.

“Being able to paint is really my passion and it’s what I’ve been wanting to do,” Spader said. “And now I have this opportunity.”

Spader has bounced back and forth working on movie sets, but without movies being attracted to the state he is left looking for work in other states.

Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislature changed the state’s film incentives program in early 2011 to cap the 25 percent rebate on qualified expenses at $50 million for how much the state will pay in rebates, and imposed these rebates in a tiered system.

This change gave Spader a large vacation and destroyed his retirement plans.

“I went back five years ago (to the movie scene) and now I’m on a break again,” he said. “I’m just waiting on another movie.”

While Spader operated Mike’s Signs shop for four years, the movie industry came knocking at his door, but with a thriving sign business, he turned them down.

A year later, Spader’s aunt informed him that the movie industry was once again looking for an on-set sign painter to work on a movie being filmed in New Mexico.

“I said, ‘Tia, I’m way too busy. I don’t have time to mess around with this stuff,’” he said.

Submitted photo: Michael Spader, an on-set movie painter, places the finishing touches on a mannequin’s head for a movie on location. Spader has worked for the movie industry for more than 22 years and says he loves the hustle and bustle.

Spader’s 22-year career in the movie industry came after movie directors sought him out for a third time. Since he had closed his sign shop and was touring the country pin stripping motorcycles and other vehicles, Spader thought, “Well, I’ll do it. It might be fun.”

Spader’s work on “Revenge on the Highway,” starring Stacy Keach, led to another movie and then another.

“I did that one movie and two or three weeks later another movie called and said, ‘We heard about the work you did for this movie and we want you to come work for us,’ and before I knew it I was doing ‘Wyatt Earp,’” he said.

In drawers and boxes spread throughout Spader’s home, movie scripts can be found from every single movie he has had a hand in, including the science fiction television series “Earth 2″ and “Fright Night,” and the yet to be released “The Last Stand,” filmed in Belen, “Bless Me, Ultima” and “Odd Thomas.”

Spader’s work begins while movie sets are being built by construction crews and before filming crews begin shooting the movie on location.

As a painting sign writer, the artist hand paints hundreds of signs to enhance the film’s ambience and bring the set to life.

He specializes mostly in western films, since others usually use vinyl paints, which Spader doesn’t like.

After the final touches have been made to a set, Spader, who works as an on-set scenic, travels with the film crew to movie locations during filming and stands by to maintain props that get damaged during filming or fix any prop emergencies.

While on set, Spader must know the movie scripts — along with all revisions — like the back of his hand, and be aware of every minute detail and be ready at a moment’s notice to change any of those details as the director sees fit.

Abigail R. Ortiz-News-Bulletin photo: Landscape artist Michael Spader is turning his hobby into a career. Spader plans on focusing on his oil paintings with the decline in movie work within the state.

“(The director) comes to me and says, ‘Spader, we’re willing to give you seven minutes. Can you make that happen in seven minutes?’

“What he’s really asking me is, ‘If I’m willing to give the crew a 7-minute break, which is going to cost $20,000 or $30,000, can you make this happen in that time?’” he said.

Although movie work can be terrible and “the worst job that anybody can ever have” due to the high stress, Spader loves every single minute of it.

“I love painting — I’ve always loved painting — but with the movies you have that added intensity to be a part of something that’s a huge creative process,” he said.

His adventures on set are accompanied with a few celebrity mishaps, such as the time he accidentally threw dirt in Geena Davis’ face while adding dust to a vehicle in “Speechless,” or when Davis fell flat on her back after tripping over Spader, who was painting fake foam roots on all fours.

He also spray painted the mouth piece of a canteen and left an actress with a black circle when she reached for the wet canteen with her mouth during a shot.

In between films, Spader fills his time with oil paintings. For Spader, oil paintings were a natural progression from doodling and creating signs.

Although Spader can’t quite pinpoint the first time he picked up a paint brush or began doodling, art has always been a large part of his life in one shape or form.

The long-time oil painter was introduced to paintings through a book his parents gave him when he was 7 years old.

Spader said he still holds onto this book, which depicts a series of Nathaniel Currier’s and James Merritt Ives’ hand-colored lithographic prints.

Since he began oil painting in 1982, after setting up a spare room dedicated to painting, he’s continued on with the medium in little spurts, but never focused solely on it until now.

Instead of sitting in an art studio in Spader’s home, he creates his color palette and his paintings “en plein air.”

The French expression, meaning in the open air, is used to describe when artists paint outdoors and derive their information directly from the scene.

“I like to paint when the mountain and lake is right there in front of me,” Spader said.

Once he’s back at home, he’ll use these paintings or notebook sketches to create a larger painting of the image with his own ideas incorporated into the canvas.

“Painting will be what I intend to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

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