Tag Archives: Stephen Powell


Teasers, Whackos, Screamers, Echoes and Zoomers: In Memory of Stephen Powell

Centre College professor Steve Powell had an extraordinary range of devotions – to his family, to his art, to his students, to a wide circle of friends, to his craft, to his sense of fun and, perhaps, to a sheerly extravagant expenditure of energy for its own sake. One winter he planted 20,000 saplings around his hilltop home. On another occasion he trucked in 150 tons of sand to create a beach on a small Kentucky pond. It was way too small for jet-skis, but short-tracking around the pond happened anyway, and in one legendary instance, a jet-ski and rider departed from the water and careened across the ground. Friends recall that Powell read many books, but only the first 100 pages – impatience caught up with him. Powell transformed a sizable former Coca-Cola bottling plant into an office and studio, indoor basketball half-court, pool hall, archive of Coke memorabilia, a gallery and hot shop for glass art, a shower with nine hand-blown glass nozzles, and a setting for his nine-piece set of drums. His death on March 16th of this year deprives Kentucky of one of its most talented artists and most vivid and beloved personalities, a man with a genius for wholeheartedly giving of himself.

Display of Stephen Powell’s work titled ‘Echoes’ at the Visitor’s Center at Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky.

At a memorial service at Centre College on September 21st and in a video by Pam Powell, Steve’s sister, speaker after speaker attested to the sense of privilege felt by everyone around the sculptor – colleagues, students, friends, family and fellow tennis and poker players.

For Powell student and University of Louisville glass professor Ché Rhodes, Powell’s greatest contribution to his students’ development was “his inability to see impossibility,” and for Father Norman Fischer, “it was allowing his students to soar.” For Stephen Cox, “in the most basic form, we were family and we were friends, which in itself, being separated by more than three decades in age, is a testament to Steve’s ability to remain fresh in almost every aspect of the word.”

Stephen Powell was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 26, 1951.  His mother, Anne Hettrick Powell, was active in cultural and civic organizations, a university administrator and a lifelong member of Birmingham’s Episcopalian Church of the Advent, a downtown parish in the forefront of support for civil rights in the 1960s.  His father was Arnold Francis Powell, playwright, chair of the Speech and Drama Department at Birmingham Southern College for 31 years, and a powerful force in Southeastern theater.  There are many parallels between father and son: both were dedicated to the avant-garde, both excelled at fostering creative ensembles, both were extremely industrious, both returned to their alma maters to teach, and both were adulated by their students.  Arnold Powell, nicknamed “Dr. God” by drama majors, eventually ran afoul of his college’s administration, which admonished him to eschew the cutting edge plays he favored, and to place “less emphasis in future on violence, sex and gutter language.”  A breaking point came to the traditionally Methodist liberal arts college when, in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, an undergraduate actress appeared in her underwear. “I was called down for it,” retorted the senior Powell, “but in the original she’s supposed to be nude.”  The college denied it had exercised censorship, but Arnold Francis Powell successfully sued the college for wrongful termination.

I wrote an essay for the catalogue of the 2012 retrospective exhibition of Powell’s art, “Psychedelic Mania: Stephen Rolfe Powell’s Dance with Glass” at the Montgomery Museum of Art. My essay was entitled Wittgenstein, the Allman Brothers and the Countercultural South: Reflections on the Art of Stephen Powell.  I took off from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’ very readable set of musings, “Remarks on Colour,” essentially making the point that color defies any ordered system of logic. Beyond an obsession with color, I described the musicality of Powell’s art, the athleticism and similarity to performance art in its making, its theatricality, dependence on chance, and its counterculture re-casting of Southern masculine identity.  Steve was polite enough to not tell me I was full of it.

One of Stephen Powell’s series titled ‘Zoomers’ on view at the Visitor’s Center at Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky.

Stephen Powell displayed an Alabaman’s dedication to the Crimson Tide and to Southern traditions of gentlemanly courtesy and hospitality, and to restorative justice: in lieu of wedding presents, Steve and Shelly asked guests to make a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Heritage, too, played a part in his musical tastes, which were widely eclectic, but favored “road scholars,” southern country rock practitioners like the Allman Brothers Band, whose music was deprecated as “swamp music” when it first came to public notice in the late 1960s.  Fueled by dual drummers and twin lead guitars, the Allman Brothers’ hard-driving rock provided a sound track for many glass blowing sessions, but more particularly its percussive rhythms seem an apt metaphor for the pulsating rhythms Powell achieved with globules of vivid colors – yellow, orange, and violet, for example – playing against sub-units of blues and greens, with smaller dashes providing a syncopated counterpoint of mauve ovals, and sunbursts of purple: Powell played with variations of slow to fast tempos, a wide chromatic scale, and polyphonic harmonics across the spectrum.

Powell’s art was a continuous drive to discover heightened means to ever more enrapturing, effulgent experiences of color. His drive was to transform light into color, color into light, as if it his works were colored atmosphere and solid simultaneously. Color and form are inseparable in Powell’s very personal language of abstraction. His artistic evolution was a virtuous circle of invention and technical expertise feeding artistic expression, in turn fostering additional craftsmanly and technical exploration.  His five major series of glass forms – Teasers, Whackos, Screamers, Echoes and Zoomers – all challenge the limits of their medium, and are genuinely innovative as glass, but perhaps have been mistakenly pigeon-holed solely as glass art. Powell was foremost an abstract sculptor concerned with color and movement:  his delightfully individual and eccentric inventions of compelling formats for a rhapsodic experience of color may be his lasting contribution.

One of Stephen Powell’s “Zoomers” at the Visitor’s Center at Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky.

Powell’s last series were called Zoomers – panels of glass often curved to be free-standing. Described as an enlarged version of the murrini of colored glass in earlier work, the Zoomers are sheer chromatic energy, great bursts and spiral novae of color. The play of order versus chaos, so much a part of Powell’s process, is alive in these works. They evoke life at its most elemental, amoebic level.

A survey of Stephen Powell’s works is on view at Maker’s Mark Distillery. His pieces hold their own in the redolent, angel’s envy-rich environment of bourbon aging warehouses. But best of all is a Zoomer outdoors, mediating between the viewer and the landscape beyond.

Current exhibitions celebrating the life and work of Stephen Powell and his students are as follows:

“Stephen Rolfe Powell ’74: A Retrospective,” AEGON Gallery, Jones Visual Art Center, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, through October 12th.

“Through the Eyes of the Maker: Stephen Rolfe Powell,” Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto, Kentucky, through November 30th.

“Legacy: The Assistants of Stephen Rolfe Powell,” Flame Run Gallery, 815 West Market Street, Louisville, Ky., through October 25th.


Something More

Something Pretty at Transylvania’s Morlan Gallery means to complicate that idea. The artwork does so in a way that is both literal and conceptual, dealing with the viewer’s experience and judgment of the objects on display and the baggage brought to ideas of beauty, aesthetics, identity, and power by the act of looking and the often-trivializing effect of prettiness.

The works shown present an emphatic statement that they are more than nice things to look at. Instead, these works and their artists reach out to the viewer in ways that are deeply affective and lend a great deal of depth and complexity against the often patronizing and dismissive designation of what is called pretty. As Curator Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman explains, the word “renders anything associated with the term solely superficial and without any intellectual or cultural significance.” It usually plays on surfaces and appearances, concerned with outward expressions that can be categorized and hierarchized according to things like class, gender, and racial and sexual identity. But Goodman presents a means to complicate this process, a means to challenge the viewer’s own perceptions and biases in regards to art, artists, and their subject matter. It is an opportunity to examine the ways beauty can be a tool of erasure rather than visibility.

Loosely grouped by media, the works are displayed in several sectors within the gallery. Dominating a single walled-off area is a projection of HuiMeng Wang’s video work You Are Beautiful You Should be Seen (2015). As a kind of introduction that immediately grabs attention when entering the gallery space, the video shows the artist on a windy and overcast beach. She washes large exposed driftwood tree trunks and attempts to dig them out even as the blowing sand encroaches and reburies them. A narrator recounts the story that spawned the footage, and explains how such a situation and the beauty it holds is fleeting and often comes up against what one expects it to be. The narration is spoken with a generic male voice and its tone curtly matter-of-fact. As the video loops this disconnect between image and story seems to grate against deeper implications of visibility and beauty. Though a glossy sheen is provided by the narration, Wang’s nuanced meditation on beauty and depiction does not remain hidden.

Angela Dufresne, ‘Listen to Me You Idiot’, 2013

This engagement with pretty surfaces and what lives beneath them (or outside them) is reiterated as the viewer shifts to the exhibition’s sector of painted works. The painted surface was long a modernist preoccupation and here two of the artists artists penetrate the concept of surfaces through an engagement with images and content. Angela Dufresne’s works play with the multifarious conceptions of being painted. It’s Like This (2012) and Listen to Me You Idiot (2013) feature bright and thickly applied swathes of paint combined into grotesque hybrid animal-human faces. But these are not monsters, their expressions are complex and conflicted, and their colors worn like masks. Similar to the idea of being painted up, the concept of expression is both an affectation and a way of staking out and claiming identity. In these paintings, the surface is inextricably tied to both the painted object and painted body. In both cases there is a striking amount of depth.

Likewise are Tiffany Calvert’s painting investigations into the nature of surfaces, application of paint, and complex engagements with the tenuous nature of beauty. Her largest work, Untitled #305 (2018), is a deconstruction of an old Flemish still life. The image is digitally processed and printed on canvas and painted over with bold, wide, and flat strokes of blended color. The painted strokes sit on top of and next to similar digitally produced effects. Together they bring out the constructed nature of the painting, not just in its materials, but in the connection between images and reality. Two other works, Untitled #297 (2017) and Untitled #290, allow the viewer full access to the illusion. Frescos applied to roughly shaped insulation boards, the painted objects only hide their front and back surfaces. The banal material in-between shatters the paintings’ ability to easily inhabit the space of artistic objects and artistic beauty. Instead they teeter on the conceptual edge between art and just pretty objects.

Justin Favela, ‘Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco)’, 2017.

A bridge between materials and beauty is further stressed in the art objects of Justin Favela. Here expectations and identities clash. With images drawn from the oeuvre of 19th century Mexican painter José María Velasco, Favela’s “paintings” reappraise Velasco’s concepts of land nationalism through the application of media heavy with racial and class implications. Velasco’s lofty nationalist propaganda, in the form of idealized landscapes, is reimagined in Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco) (2017) with the cut paper of the Mexican piñata. The landscapes are abstracted to the point that they lose cohesion and become much more fluid patterns of shape and color. No longer tied to often-overtly racist nationalism, Favela’s objects create new spaces for engagement and exploration where the viewer might be free to encounter identities and experiences with a depth and through materials not before considered.

Subjective ideas of beauty and prettiness are often used to close off certain identities, bodies, or experiences from deeper engagement. The complexity and ambivalence of beauty is a common thread in the overall experience Goodman has curated. All these artworks have a depth that seeks to muddle the pleasurable and powerful implications of looking. This is a call to reexamine what it means to look. This seems most complete in Stephan Rolfe Powell’s glass objects. They begin as playful and aesthetically interesting but reveal much more in the implications of their forms. Two colorful glass objects, Cracking Frenetic Glare (2006) and Twilight Curiosity Buns (2000), are playful, erotic, presented as pseudo-bodily spectacles. Yet below their surfaces runs an anxiety about such bodily comparisons, especially as the objects sprout long phallic tubes from suggestively shaped bulbous forms. They reflect back on the viewer the subjective of the gaze.

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

This anxiety becomes more acute in Powell’s two large curved plates of glass. These one-inch thick glass walls, beautifully backlit, stand on low pedestals and tower above the heads of most visitors and confront the viewer with complex, patterned forms that dip and flow through the depth of the glass. The complex tangles of colorful tubes seem to inhabit their own world within the glass, locked inside but on the verge of escaping outward. At first pleasing to look at, the forms grow more sinister the more they are considered. What could be flowers or simple geometric shapes might be mouths or other orifices attached to long squirming creatures or phallic organs. Like with Powell’s other works, there is a transformation in the experience of looking as the surface-level beauty deepens into more complicated and even unsettling territory.

In this exhibition, the viewer is confronted and must likewise confront what it means to look at, see, and appraise things and bodies. The power dynamics of expectations versus experience can be reconsidered and rerouted. In the end these works demand more than a passing a glance but a more critical and compassionate look.