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First Person Singular: Patrick Shields, 59, Rixeyville, Va., wallpaper hanger

By Amanda Abrams,

I would’ve maybe liked to be an artist, but I had to pay for everything, and I was looking for a way to go to college. I went to the University of Maryland, and they had a job open in the physical plant, which had a huge shop with apprenticeship programs. This was a professional shop; they were mostly master craftsmen from Europe who were getting ready to retire. You’re talking the ’70s, so that was the end of that era of people who’d come over around World War II. The Dutch guy that I worked for, he was very strict with me. I worked almost a year and a half just pasting his paper and setting up all his plumb and level lines, and then having him come and say, “Nope, you did it wrong. Start again.”

When you wallpaper a room, if it’s not perfect, it shows. The only thing that doesn’t show is when you do it perfectly, and then they don’t see the paper hanger’s job; they just see the material. The way you get good is by making mistakes and doing things over and over and over again. I’m always thinking, How can I do this a little better, a little bit faster? How can I use this tool properly? How was this done in the past? To get the material to go in balanced and perfect and everything, it’s a little bit artistic. And whatever the problems are with the material, the wall preparation, the adhesives, I’m there because I can fix it. It’s the greatest job in the world, because I go in, and in two days, I make something totally beautiful, just like a makeover program or fixing your car. The only purpose of wallpaper is to make people happy, and people get very happy once they have something beautiful in their house.

What I get to do a lot, which other people don’t get to do, is museums. For example, I just finished the Dumbarton House museum in Georgetown, and I did Montpelier, James Madison’s house. The kind of paper that they’re putting in there is made exactly like the 18th century. A lot of paper hangers don’t know how to deal with water-soluble paper, which means working completely dry and using no moisture. But to me, it’s one of the most fun things ever, because it’s like stepping back through time. You have to think like an 18th-century person. At Montpelier, they have a Dolley Madison reenactor. So [one time] I’m doing the paper, and all of a sudden this actress comes in, in character, with her little Jane Eyre outfit and empire dress and her little bonnet. And I’m just finishing the paper and she’s looking around, and it’s like a time warp — exactly the way it should’ve been, with exactly the right paper.

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