The spirit of creation resides in the colossal, multicoloured vessels of Stephen Rolfe Powell. A Kentucky artist with roots in the deep South, Powell has established a name for himself in the contemporary glass movement with recent exhibitions in New York, Seattle, Chicago, Paris and Hamburg. He is also the only American glass artist whose work is represented in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Through an evocative Rothko-like use of abstract colour fields and a sensual vessel format, his works explore the fragile boundaries of creation; artistic, sexual, divine, cosmic, and mythic. In a heroic effort to understand and convey the primal act of artistic creation, Powell's vessels plunge both artist and viewer back into the unconscious back into the cosmological and mythical origins of the universe.
Much of Powell's fascination with the act of creation is driven by a spiritual bond with Nature and fire. As a direct descendant of the native American Priestess Pocahontas, Powell seems to draw his energies and references intuitively from Nature and the surrounding landscape of his Kentucky farm. His radiant, swelling vessels find easy parallels in the geological stratifications of exposed cliffs and riverbeds, the orbiting planets of the cosmos, the pregnant bellies of native American pots and baskets, and the bulging bodies of prehistoric fertility goddesses. Metaphors for creations of all kinds overlap easily in Powell's luminous universes where the glass medium itself becomes a metaphorical expression of the fragility of creation and the insubstantiality of his artistic quest.
It is not, however, the symbols of creation that preoccupy Powell but the intense singularity of creation itself. His attraction to glass is ultimately linked to a conception of creation that depends upon fire as the catalyst. Each new vessel for him is an attempt to physically re-enact the primordial moment of creation through the transmutative power of fire. French theorist Gaston Bachelard has explained the universalising implications of this process in the Psychoanalysis of Fire:
"Fire is a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything. If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by Fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal... Among all living phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell... It is well-being and it is respect. It is a tutelary and terrible divinity, both good and bad. It can contradict itself; thus it is one of the principles of universal explanation."
A self-proclaimed pyromaniac, Powell wields fire at the end of his blowpipe with the same intensity and spiritual knowledge as a shaman performing a sacred ritual. His penchant for working at night enhances the ceremonial effects of the roaring furnace and red-hot glass awaiting transformation. His preoccupation with fire extends beyond the confines of the studio to include a massive anagama kiln on a nearby property that has the capacity to fire more than 2,000 ceramic pots at one time; it is the largest kiln ever built in Kentucky. There are also his annual bonfires and fireworks festivals that can only be described as anthropological throwbacks to practices documented in Sir George Herbert Frazer's The Golden Bough.
Even Powell's earliest childhood memories focus on such polar experiences with fire as family campfires and Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings aimed at liberal-minded professors like his father, who taught drama at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama. Just as fire is central to Powell's conception of creation, so is colour. He regards colour as the most important element in his vessels because it has the same expressive ability as fire to evoke, to shock, and to transform. Since he began working in the late 1970s, first as a painter and ceramist, then exclusively in glass after 1984, Powell has tried to incorporate the radical colour aesthetics of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism into his art. Between 1984 and 1988, he employed a bold gestural idiom in his vessels, a visual equivalent to the "action painting" of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. More recently, he has adapted the colour fields of Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland to his larger works. It is the raw energy, radiant colour and spiritual essence of their paintings that Powell pumps into his giant universes.
His aim is not to produce "abstract designs" or "bloodless decorations" but to evoke basic human emotions. And colour is a tool to tap into the primordial energies of creation. Born in 1951 in Birmingham, Alabama, Powell grew up in the shadow of the city's monument to the steel industry, a 54-metre-tall statue of the Roman mythological fire god, Vulcan. He attended Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he received his BA in painting in 1974. After briefly teaching art at a Birmingham high school and at Draper State Prison in Elmore, Alabama, he entered graduate school at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. After receiving his MFA in ceramics in 1983 he worked in the fire-intensive process of raku. Powell had experimented with glassblowing in graduate school and at summer workshops, but his commitment to the medium came only in 1984.
While attending an exhibition of his ceramics in Houston, Texas, he visited the Rothko Chapel at St Thomas University, where he experienced a strong empathy with the aims of the artist and a total frustration with the inadequacy of paint to convey emotion through colour. 'I realised that Rothko had gone as far as humanly possible', recalls Powell, 'so glass suddenly seemed like the logical alternative to painting and ceramics.' Powell says he often wonders whether Rothko would have committed suicide if he had considered the expressive potential of coloured glass.
Over the next couple of summers Powell taught at Summervail in Colorado, where he had the opportunity to work closely with such diverse glass artists as William Morris, Marvin Lipofsky and Dante Marioni. By 1985, he had already acquired sufficient expertise and reputation to assist Dan Dailey and Lino Tagliapietra at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood. The atmosphere of experimentation and innovation at Pilchuck encouraged him to apply the colour aesthetics of Abstract Expressionist painting to glass. In the same year, Corning's New Glass Review affirmed Powell's colouristic experiments when it featured three of his vessels as the work of an up-and-coming artist.
His early pieces are generally small vessels of vividly coloured opaque glass with contrastingly bright horizontal stripes or "wrappings" of molten glass that are meant to emulate the spontaneity and physicality of "action painters" Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The vessel format became a crucial component in his work at this time, and he adheres to it now even in spite of its current negative associations with "craft". The vessel shape appealed to Powell because of its ability to serve both utilitarian and ceremonial purposes and because it is the oldest significant glass form dating back to the early Phoenicians. Around 1988 he began to experiment with classic Italian techniques using murrini as a way to increase the number and visual impact of the colours in each piece.
He subsequently developed a process that involved fusing thousands of hand-cut glass beads to a cylinder of hot glass, which he then blew out into complex accordion and multiple lobe shapes. Introducing the murrini allowed him to explore the relationships and effects of multicoloured bands as well as the possible visual tensions between mixed areas of opaque and transparent glass on a single surface. The swollen glass beads have organic, amoeba-like shapes that engulf the entire glass surface in highly calculated patterns of colour akin to the Neo-Impressionistic dots of Georges Seurat. The earlier, thread-thin "wrappings" have expanded into thick registers of vividly coloured beads that hug the vessel's fluid folds. These zones of colour create a lively organic character that variously suggests geological strata built up though the millennia and cosmic implosions born of the "Big Bang".
Such diverse associations are encouraged by the geological, planetary and incendiary terms he includes in many of his complex titles. Powell's adaptation of classical murrini techniques has allowed him greater "calculation" in the choice of colours and, as a consequence, greater control in the relationship between the body of the vessel and the viewer.
Powell further clarified his personal vision of glass art in 1990 when he accepted an invitation from the former Soviet Union to teach and to study at the Muhkina Glass Institute in Leningrad and at the Lvov Glass Factory and Art Institute in the Ukraine.
The lack of information about Soviet glass in the West had long intrigued Powell, and he was literally the first American ever allowed to enter many of the sacrosanct glass factories of the USSR. What he discovered there was a dramatically different method of working: Soviet glass production typically divided the act of creation between an "artist" who generated designs and "technicians" who executed the piece. His brief encounter with this division of labour helped him to recognise in his own work the necessity of a direct, "hands-on" approach that imparts traces of his physical presence as well as embodying the mental acts by which a work is conceived.
Powell's most recent vessels reflect the insights of this Soviet experience in their unabashed emphasis on sheer physicality and a robustness of size that measures the very limits of his physical capabilities. They have easily doubled in size, becoming more sculptural and sensual with long tapering necks that aspire to heights above a metre. The earlier complex shapes have given way to the bulging double lobe, full, and flat orb shapes that have allowed him to strengthen the optical intensity of the abstract colour fields. The light-filled registers now pulsate with radiant colours from the approximately 3,000 murrini that make up the colour fields of each vessel. No two pieces are ever alike and their colour harmonies vary widely; some are based on natural elements earth, air, water while others are ethereal and otherworldly.
The suggestive sequences of bands and the slight modulations of bead-size compel the viewer to examine surfaces and to question the relation between the outer tactile surface and the inner space of reflected light. The previously neglected interior of the vessel is here permeated with a vaporous cathedral light that creates a pregnant void if not The Void. It is in these subtle shifts and almost painterly manipulations of light and colour that Powell successfully merges the power and luminosity of glass with the colour aesthetic of the Abstract Expressionists.
While crossovers between glass and sculpture have become commonplace, Powell is one of only a few glass artists working today whose art may genuinely be described as bridging the gap between the traditional colour aesthetics of painting and the traditional sensibilities of glass. The sensual shapes of his vessels are also intended as vehicles into the unconscious experience of primordial creation. The rounded bellies of the orb shapes and the sagging buttocks of the double lobes, replete with vaginal slit, all speak to a primal act of creation that is sexual and life-giving. Their archetypal forms offer modern analogues to palaeolithic fertility goddesses such as the Venus of Willendorf or Venus of Lespuque. To borrow a phrase from Lucy Lippard, Powell's works function like "symbols of lost symbols"2; they hover between past and present, permanence and transformation, ritualistic symbol and decorative artifact. Their dichotomous nature even appears in their unusual titles.
Powell gives every vessel a last name of Smith, Jones or Johnson as a way of paradoxically emphasising the universality of their forms and the banality of art itself in the late 20th century. He also incorporates sexually loaded works into many of his titles, such as cleavage, cheeks, buns, sigh and gasp, that mock the modern viewer's preoccupation with the epiphenomena of sex and simultaneously invite a more focused second look that might glimpse the common visual language of the collective unconscious.
However important the symbolic and the formal elements are to the work of Stephen Powell, the physical, momentary act of creation remains his primary focus. Every wielding of the blowpipe for him is an attempt to connect with the primordial essences of creation through the transmutative power of fire. Every new vessel with its varied shape and colour is a constant reworking, a constant search of the "one coming answer" that will satisfy the creative impulse.
If Powell's giant universes seem to have little in common with the parodic juxtapositions and politicised specificity of our postmodern era, it is because their references are drawn intuitively from the unknowable realms of the mythical and the metaphysical. His vessels are intensely private quests to understand and to convey the invisible links that bind the fragile boundaries of Creation.