Ron Sumner painted sets for well-known shows before teaching at Liberty
From painting sets for Broadway in New York City to designing the backdrops for network television shows and major motion films, Ron Sumner has enjoyed nothing less than a successful career.
However, his dream of building a prominent Christian art program led him to Liberty University, where he currently serves as a professor, sharing both his passion and real-world experience with students in the studio & digital arts department.
As a child, Sumner greatly enjoyed pencil drawing, but it was not until high school that he discovered his love for painting. After high school, he attended Indiana University’s Herron School of Art, assuming the program would serve as a placeholder until he decided his major.
“At that time, art was something you did on Sunday afternoon if you didn’t have anything else to do,” Sumner said. “And the implication was that surely you could find something better to do.”
Sumner immediately found his niche and began to flourish in his painting classes. He developed a love for landscape and portraiture and quickly began to use his artistic talent for the school’s
“I did some acting, and when you are in a school production you have to help build and paint the sets,” Sumner said. “With my art background, painting sets came naturally, but when I sat in the audience and saw my backdrop with the lights on it, I was hooked.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, Sumner managed to stay involved in community theater. He taught during the school term and spent his summers acting, singing and painting sets for musicals. One particular opera group hired Sumner on multiple occasions to paint backdrops for their shows.
“At one performance, the house designer saw my set and remarked, ‘You should be in the union.’ He put me in contact with the United Scenic Artists who required a practical entrance exam,” Sumner said. “I did pretty well on the test, so they called me to work on drops for a shop in Michigan right away.”
Sumner went on to obtain a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Chicago.
During Sumner’s professional career, he designed sets for many prominent films and theater performances. One of his most challenging backdrops was for the Broadway revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” This particular performance starred many talents, including Nathan Lane and Sarah Jessica Parker.
“It was a huge set, some 20-feet-high, with a lot of carved Styrofoam that was painted after the carving was primed,” Sumner said. “It involved climbing up and down scaffolding and using a cherry picker forklift to paint it.”
Sumner said he enjoyed his vocation because it allowed him to utilize his creative ability. In fact, one of his most memorable career experiences was creating his own backdrops for the European
tour of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“The designer gave me quick sketches to work from, and then I was allowed to bring them to full theatrical level on my own, and in a way I got to put my own stamp on the production,” Sumner said.
Additionally, his job gave him some unique chances to meet well-known actors, actresses and other public figures.
“I was backstage touching up a set of Sugar Babies in St. Louis and walked in on Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller practicing their curtain call bows just before opening night,” Sumner said describing his work at the Muny Opera in the summer of 1984.
Sumner loved his work as a set painter, but after he started a family he decided to return to a more stable teaching job.
“I saw Liberty as an opportunity to be a part of what I had dreamed of since going to a secular art school: helping to build the kind of art program in a Christian school that rivaled what the secular schools had,” Sumner said.
For almost nine years, Sumner has worked at Liberty. He teaches a variety of subjects, including art history, drawing, graphic design and 3D animation.
“As a teacher, Ron is very student-centered and continually strives to put his students first,” Associate professor of studio & digital arts Edward Edman said.
Don Davis, associate professor of studio & digital arts, agreed Sumner brings a wealth of professional and academic experience to the department.
“I remember one year when he carried his usual teaching load plus overload,” Davis said. “During that same year, he developed a number of courses for Liberty University Online. On a personal level, Ron is an encouragement to those around him and contributes to a collegial atmosphere.”
Rutt is a feature reporter.