One of the best compliments a creative person can receive is when people describe your work as singularly recognizable. That description certainly applies to Kentucky’s internationally renowned glass artist, Stephen Rolfe Powell, whose art, regardless of size or shape, can be picked out instantly in a crowded room of glass.
With Powell, it is all about color and texture, which in his case derives from his signature Italian murrini beads, colorful glass circles cut from glass rods that Powell began experimenting with about 20 years ago. These dots of color are now a staple of his work, his painterly palette as it were, with up to 2,500 on one piece.
Powell is already well known in Louisville, but we’ll see more of him in the coming weeks. Hot on the heels of a new book, “Stephen Rolfe Powell: Glassmaker” (University Press of Kentucky; 228 pgs., $75), the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft will exhibit the sequential show “Master Makers: Stephen Rolfe Powell, A Retrospective Exhibition.” And several of his former students at Centre College in Danville will pay homage to him by showing in companion exhibitions in Louisville and Berea.
It is a heady time for the man that many artists call the “Godfather of Kentucky Glass.”
Stephen Rolfe Powell, 55, is a native of Birmingham, Ala., who earned a bachelor’s degree in painting and ceramics from Centre College in 1974. He loved color and was enamored with the Abstract Expressionists, but he also realized the solitary painter’s life was not for him. He taught for a while, including at Centre, before heading to Louisiana State University to pursue a master’s degree in ceramics. During a summer workshop, he was impressed by the teamwork that goes into glass-blowing, and so he added a minor in glass.
He graduated from LSU in 1983 and returned to Centre to teach ceramics and sculpture. But glass was his siren’s call, and in 1985 he built a glass studio at the college and spent time at Pilchuck School in Stanwood, Wash., the “glass mecca” that functions as a laboratory where artists experiment with glass.
Powell has long given his works provocative three-word titles that mix the ordinary with the bawdy, things like “Lascivious Torrid Cleavage” and “Red Cheeks Johnson.” He settled on the titling scheme early in his career, ending each with Johnson, Smith or Jones, common names that befit what he calls “an ordinary substance” — glass. The other half of the equation seems self-explanatory, because his curvy pieces do tend to be sensual and bodacious. (His more recent work continues the three-word tradition, but with more descriptive words.)
Despite his use of Italian beads, though, Powell cannot be lumped in with the Venetians, who have been prominent glassmakers for more than 900 years. “I would have to say that I’m more American-influenced,” he said in an interview. “Murrini were actually made by the Romans before the Venetians, so you could say that the Romans influenced my work.”
Powell gained national attention in 1990 when his art was showing at the Kimzey-Miller Gallery in Seattle, just in time for the Glass Art Society annual conference. His work is now in prominent collections around the world, including Corning (New York) Museum of Glass, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Regent Hotel in Hong Kong.
Powell’s work has been shaped by unplanned events. In 1991, he seriously injured his right hand, severing several tendons, an artery and nerves; ironically, it happened when he broke a window while trying to help a bird out of his studio. He underwent extensive surgery and four months of physical therapy, then resumed making small glass objects before quickly building back up to larger works.
His convalescence reminded him how driven he is to create. It also seems to have made him more appreciative of the people around him; his former students frequently remark on his generosity when it comes to acknowledging the role others play in creating his art.
That wasn’t Powell’s last accident. In 2004 he broke his left wrist and tore an Achilles tendon after he fell off a stool, which led his work in an unexpected direction based on his own limitations. With his arm in a cast and his foot in a stabilizing boot, Powell was unable to handle the blowpipe as he previously had. He worked with smaller sizes and shapes and created a new series of asymmetrical work he called “Whackos.” That work is distinctly different from his earlier work, such as the series he calls “Teasers.”
“I don’t think sculpture versus vessel,” Powell said. “My roots are with vessel-making, but I have always approached vessels as sculptural forms. It’s fair to say that (the Whacko) forms veer away from the vessel connotations that most of the older work had. Anteaters, aardvarks, turkeys and elephants are all images that people seem to think of. The … forms, in a way, are more simple shapes and the forms are more pure now that the vessel reference has been eliminated.”
He is particularly proud of the book; it is the first art book ever produced by the University Press of Kentucky, and its publication is the impetus for the mid-career retrospective, the largest exhibition yet of his work. Most of the 30-plus pieces, from his early days to the present, are from his personal collection and have not been shown before. The book and retrospective cover the course of his career, including his present day series, “Screamers,” a combination of the previous two styles with a vertical sculptural design.
“These new pieces, because of their asymmetry, introduce a dynamism and interaction with the space around them that the earlier works did not engage,” said Marta Hewett, who carried Powell’s work at her former Louisville gallery and now carries it in Cincinnati. “Now the pieces are sculptural and appear very differently in the round than the earlier, symmetrical works.” (Hewett is having a Powell show from Nov. 8-Jan. 3, and another Powell exhibition, “November to Remember,” is up at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington.)
To the extent that blown glass has a hold on Kentucky, and particularly Louisville, it is largely because of Powell. He’s won a number of state and national teaching awards, and his former students sing his praises loudly and often.
“No one has had a greater impact on Kentucky’s current glass art phenomenon than Stephen Rolfe Powell,” writes Brook Forrest White Jr. in an essay that accompanies the KMAC and Flame Run exhibitions (the complete version is at www.flamerun.com). White, the co-owner of Flame Run Gallery and Hot Shop in Louisville, spent 12 years with Powell, as a student and then an assistant. White noted that “most all of the recent developments in Kentucky involving glass art can be traced directly back to him, where his advice and approval were sought well before these new projects came to fruition.”
Powell’s former Centre students relate many “Steve stories” that illustrate his energy, fun-loving nature and constant hard work.
Che Rhodes, who now heads the glass program at the University of Louisville, said Powell taught him that “anything can be accomplished, if you simply don’t recognize or do not perceive or believe in limitations. I’ve seen Steve, countless times, complete endeavors that most people I know would never consider undertaking. I think he is successful in what he does because he simply doesn’t realize that it can’t be done.”
But Powell could not make his art without his unusually involved team of students/assistants.
“Executing a strictly choreographed routine, the five of us students assisting Powell all had our critical roles in helping him create his masterpieces in colored glass,” said former student Naomi Stuecker. “I will always remember the anticipation of the crowd, the excitement of the fire … and the feeling that I was a part of something much bigger than myself, much greater than the moment in time we were living through.”
Paul Nelson, another former Powell assistant who now works at Flame Run, said being part of Powell’s crew made you feel “like you were part of something special, a member of an elite club or a touring rock band. Of course, Steve was the crazy lead singer of this rock band, the one we were always trying to catch up with.”
White, in the essay, notes that, “At the end of (the) sessions, Stephen makes a simple yet magnanimous gesture by shaking hands with all of the team. … Stephen further recognizes his team by listing their names on his show cards and posters. This may seem like a trivial thing to do, but in reality it is extremely rare that any artist, much less an artist of Stephen’s caliber, recognizes his or her assistants in this way.”
Many former Powell students have gone on to glass careers, such as White, Rhodes and Patrick Martin, who heads the glass program at Emporia (Kansas) State University.
Flame Run could be called “Centre North” — its name is taken from a non-sanctioned activity that is popular among Centre students, and the staff there includes former students White, Stuecker, Nelson, Paul Hugues and Jonathan Stokes.
The Flame Run show — “Johnson, Smith and Jones: Stephen Rolfe Powell’s Powerful Legacy to Glass Art: His Assistants” — includes work by 14 artists who apprenticed with Powell from 1985-2007. (In addition to Flame Run staff already mentioned, the other artists in the show are Powell, Martin, Rhodes, Thomas Spake, Chris Bohach, Adam Kenney, D. H. McNabb, Jonathan Capps, Matthew Cummings and Lauren Arnold.)
While the Powell influence is the most obvious in the colorful “Segment Murrini Series” by Hugues, most of the artists are going a different route, although “touches of Powell” are apparent and expected.
White specializes in vessels composed of layers in different patterns and colors, while Martin and Rhodes are actually sculptors who happen to work in glass.
The show at the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea is another companion exhibition featuring eight students/apprentices.
“Under the Influence: Glass Works by Stephen Rolfe Powell and His Students” also features White, Hugues, Nelson, Stuecker, Bohach, Arnold and Stokes, with another graduate, Jonathan Swanz, who decided to attend Centre while he was still at New Albany High School after seeing Powell’s work in Julius Friedman’s Louisville gallery. (Friedman designed the book and said the experience “rekindled a friendship.” Powell echoes that sentiment, calling it “a restoration project.”)
Stuecker’s work in both of the student exhibitions shows her interest in fused glass, while Swanz continues his exploration into cast glass. A standout is Nelson’s sandblasted and acid-etched “Blue Spouted Bird Ladle,” with its iconography of creepy organic tools that just might move at any minute.
I would love to own a Powell piece — who wouldn’t? — but with prices hovering around $25,000, the best I can do is treasure the murrini bead he gave me and fondly recall my visit to Centre in 2004, when I received the grand tour of his hot shop and farm.
Many things impressed me that day, including the glass sinks and columns he custom-designed for his house. But what took my breath away the most was his office/gallery, with rows of “Teasers” and other works. Now I find myself wondering whether I saw some of the pieces currently on display at KMAC or in the book. That’s a nice fantasy.
Retrospectives can be tricky things, in that they may imply an end that is not in sight (at least to the artist). That said, in Powell’s case some mid-career reflection is warranted, and it certainly doesn’t preclude more great work to come (assuming he can avoid the injury bug, which may not be a given, seeing that he just got his broken right hand out of a cast!).
Regardless, I look forward to a Stephen Powell retrospective when he is in his 80s. There will be that many more “Steve stories” from former students, plus additional awards from the teaching community and acclaim from the art world.
And surely more work. If I had a crystal ball, I’d take a peek to see what he’ll be up to with his glass. I am sure it will be colorful.
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