If you’re at a cocktail party with Mariah Gillis, you will definitely not be the person with the most interesting job.
Gillis, a restorative painter, also worked in the greens department during all six seasons of House of Cards, the popular Netflix show filmed in and around Baltimore. That meant dealing with and creating the artificial plants and landscaping for shots, no matter the challenge. (Shooting in February for a scene that’s supposed to take place in July? Turning a construction landfill near Edgewood into New Mexico? No problem.)
Gillis, originally from Ithaca, New York, studied art at Towson University. And while she majored in painting, she also dabbled in sculpture and ceramics—which came in handy after graduation when she began building and painting sets for Center Stage, Everyman Theatre, and Olney Theatre Center. The gratification of doing something she loved was overwhelming. “To be able to find a job with creative fulfillment—it’s great.”
In 2002, she began working with Thomas Moore Studios, a design and architectural finishes firm. Suddenly, she found herself doing restorations inside countless historical buildings and homes.
“I love old buildings. I love architecture. And getting to be in some of these historic spaces is really cool. You get to see stuff that the public doesn’t get to see and get up in the ceilings and see how things are built—it’s just so fascinating to me.”
While working a job at First & Franklin Presbyterian Church, Gillis found names etched into a surface dated 1859.
“It’s like finding a ghost. I can imagine them up there on a scaffold scratching this into wet plaster. If they had any idea that, 160 years after that, you’d have a crew of women up there in the ceiling finding this,” she says, laughing.
She has also spent years helping with the meticulous restoration project at the impressive Clifton Mansion, originally built in 1803 and purchased by Johns Hopkins in 1838. Now that Gillis and the rest of the crew—including two art conservators and three other restorative painters—have finished the dining room, Gillis is back on set. This time it’s for Showtime’s series pilot The President Is Missing, an adaptation of the novel by President Bill Clinton and James Patterson.
But she’s very happy to keep herself planted in both worlds. Recently, the Baltimore Builders Congress and Exchange, a trade organization that was founded in 1888, awarded Gillis the Master Craftsman’s Award—the first time in their history that a woman has received the lifetime achievement honor. At the ceremony, Gillis was thinking of her mom, who passed away in 2015.
“She always told this story. I was 4 or 5 and we came upon road construction, and the flag person was a woman. I looked out and said, ‘See, Mom. That’s a lady worker, and that’s always nice to see.’”
That night, Gillis held her award and thought, “See, Mom. That’s nice to see.”