Glass Focus, Volume 10, February/March 1996
By: Beverly M. Copeland, Editor and Publisher
Stephen Rolfe Powell is known internationally for his radiantly colored,
giant vessels. The swollen sensual forms, easily seduce the viewer with
their powerful intensity. The delicate neck portion offers a strong contrast
to the earthy, voluptuous bottoms.
Powell is driven by the act of creation. He loves the pyrotechnic aspect
of glassmaking, and says that the process of making the piece is "the
greatest thrill of all."
He painstakingly lays out the thousands of pieces of colored glass that
covers the surface of each piece, insuring a different explosion of color
on each one.
Unlike some artists, Powell encourages people to touch his pieces, and
admits that he takes a certain delight when he catches a viewer "fondling"
Born and bred in Birmingham, Alabama, he is as much at home in the gardens
of his 40 acre Kentucky farm, as he is working and teaching in his studio.
He spends much of his free time tending to his flowers and vegetables.
In 1990, Powell spent two months in the former Soviet Union, lecturing
and teaching at the Red May factory, the Lvov Art Institute and the Mukhina
Art Institute. At the conclusion of his visit, two of his pieces were
presented to the renowned Soviet museum, the Hermitage, by the Mukhina.
His works represent the only American glass in its collection.
Powell appeared on Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and on Soviet TV,
in 600 Seconds with Alexander Nevzorov. In 1991 he was working in his
studio when he tried to open a window to let out a wayward pigeon. The
glass shattered, causing extensive injuries and almost ending his career.
Fortunately, for him and for us, his recovery seems to be almost complete.
RECORDED AT SOFA CHICAGO, 1995
GF: How did you get started in glass?
SP: I got interested in glass in graduate school. I came
through the ceramic channels at the school where I now teach, Centre
College, in Danville, Kentucky. At that time, I was equally interested
in ceramics and painting. For my senior undergraduate show I did
large scale paintings, which were strongly influenced by abstract
expressionism and color-field painters. Color was always very important
GF: What year are we talking about?
SP: I graduated from Centre College in 1974. When I look
back at where my work came from, it really come out of two interests,
painting and color. I became very interested in three dimensional
art through ceramics. I enjoyed throwing on the potters' wheel,
I liked the process of forming the piece that way. The forms of
my later work came out of my ceramics background, which transferred
pretty easily into glass at the end of a blow pipe. It was sort
of a natural transition.
I really didn't get exposed to glass until I went to graduate school.
There were several years between getting my undergraduate degree,
and 1980, the year I started graduate classes at Louisiana State
GF: What did you do during that hiatus?
SP: I went back to upper Birmingham, Alabama, and started
a studio. I painted for the first year. I began doing these huge
poured non-representational paintings, I thought the art market
would find them and just snap them up. Then I taught painting and
drawing at Draper State Prison for nine months.
GF: Tell us about that.
SP: It was a pilot program sponsored by the Alabama State
Council on the Arts and Humanities. I was the first on the go into
the prison, which was a maximum security facility. When I first
arrived they would jeer at me, it was really uncomfortable going
in there. The prisoners were very suspicious of me at first. I was
an outsider, and there was this whole underground political system.
I befriended some of the inmates, and the head political figure
eventually became my right hand man and ran the studio when I wasn't
there. After a while it went from then being very suspicious of
me, to them treating me like royalty. They would meet me at the
gate and lead me through the prison. I felt like a celebrity. It
was strange, realizing what some of these people had done. For the
most part they seemed very normal, but one of the guys who worked
with me was a murderer. He had killed his girlfriend. I just couldn't
imagine it when I talked to him. He was talented, sharp, and intellectual.
GF: Did any of the men you worked with at the prison, go
on to sell their work?
SP: Yes. One of the more talented ones. I helped him get
on work relief and he got out of prison and was working in Birmingham.
A few months later, I got stuck in a traffic jam. I found out there
had been a bank robbery, and it turned out it was the guy I had
helped get out of prison.
After that I taught secondary school for four years. I also built
a ceramic kiln and worked with high fire glazes on stoneware and
porcelain. Around 1980 I started graduate school at LSU in Baton
Rouge. They were just starting a glass studio. My first class involved
building a studio. I didn't like it at the time, but it turned out
to be a good experience and I learned a lot. During that first summer
in graduate school I was hired as an assistant at both Haystack
and at Penland schools. It was at those places that I was exposed
to the broader realm of glass and ceramics. That was a real eye-opener.
That summer I saw glass really being done for the first time. I
knew pretty quickly that was what I wanted to do. We had been fumbling
around at LSU, we didn't know what we were doing. The guy that was
teaching it wasn't really into glass.
At this time, a conflict developed between the time I wanted to
put into glass and the time I needed to spend doing my ceramic work
for my MFA. I finally had to curtail glass for a year and finish
my degree. At the time I was occasionally going down to Tulane on
weekends and got to work with Gene Koss a bit. Right after I got
my graduate degree in 1983, I got the job at Centre. It took about
two years to build the glass studio there.
GF: So you weren't actually working with glass at the time?
SP: I would go off and work in the summer. It was a tough
period for me in terms of glass. I was doing ceramics and starting
to show a bit. I know that I had several years of work to do with
glass before I could get to the level I was at in ceramics. I went
to Haystack for three straight summers, and another school called
Summervail. I was in charge of the hotshop and a lot of glass people
came through, Billy Morris, Billy Bernstein, Sonia Bloomdahl, it
was an incredible experience. They probably don't realize it, but
they strongly influenced my way of working.
GF: Were you always involved in the blowing aspect of glass?
SP: Yes. I was drawn immediately to the blowing, I loved
it the moment I tried it. I loved handling the pipe, and making
the glass respond to movement. I believe that you really need to
enjoy the process that you create with.
GF: What were the first things you did?
SP: I immediately went into color, I like color. When you
track my work though slides, I think you can see a clear evolution,
from the painting, to the ceramics, and then into glass. I spent
a couple of years on technique, just learning how to handle glass.
I was pretty slow to develop. Gradually, after I felt I had the
skills, I began experimenting with shape, but I still wasn't happy
with the color. It wasn't until 1987 that I started making some
strides forward with it. It took a while for me to figure out how
I wanted to use color in glass.
GF: The shape that you're using, it's sculptural looking
but it still has the feeling of a vessel.
SP: They are vessels, there's no question about that. There
was a lot of pressure, when I was in graduate school, to not use
the vessel. The vessel couldn't really be a substantial sculptural
form. I came through with all that "art versus craft " crap. I learned
to tune a lot of that out. I loved making vessels from way back.
When I was in graduate school I made sculptural, totally non-vessel,
work, but I kept coming back to the vessel.
GF: The shape is very unique, it looks almost like a torso.
SP: You're talking about the double lobe shape. I've gone
through a fair number of shapes, but right now I'm concentrating
on three shapes, the double lobe shape, a flatter shape that has
more of a horizon, and the simpler, round shape. Every time I veer
from that , and get a more complex shape, I come back to the simpler
forms. The simpler shapes are better because the surfaces are so
active and crazy.
GF: The colors that you use are fabulous! I'm sure that's
what you are mostly known for, the surface colorations.
SP: If I were known for anything, I would hope it would
be for the color, the color choices and what the color does.
GF: The shapes are all blown. Are they blown into a mold?
SP: I guess you would have to call it a mold, although that
sounds too restricting and controlling. To get the double lobes
I use two pipes that are welded onto a steel plate. Right now I
work with three assistants. My goal is to make four pieces a week,
so when I teach full time during the fall and spring I have to work
two nights a week. We lose a lot. The percentage of pieces that
show up in a gallery setting, is only about 20% of what we make.
We're on the edge of disaster for most of the process.
SP: Once we blow the piece out we don't ever go horizontal
again. I'm up on top and its all hanging down. The amount of glass
that I handle is hard to move around by myself. There's usually
about 25 to 30 pounds of molten glass at the end.
The climax of the process is quite dramatic. With approximately
25 pounds of engorged hot glass on the end of his blowpipe, Powell
runs up a short flight of stairs to the top of a 5-foot platform.
He drops the glass straight down between two preheated metal poles,
creating an indentation on either side and dividing the shape into
two lobes. With help from his assistants, and a blowtorch, he maneuvers
the glass into position, stretching the neck of the vessel two feet
or more, while blowing more and more air into the vessel, until
it reaches it's desired size.
GF: How do you get the results that you do with the coloration
of the pieces? The overall effect is almost like mosaics.
SP: We spend a lot of time making the colors. We basically
use what most other glass artists in the United States use, the
Kugler color bars. But we overlap the colors. That's my first decision,
what two or three colors am I going to combine?
GF: Do you have a definite palette in mind for each piece?
SP: It changes a lot. My palette is just rows and rows of
beads of color or murrini. We spend hours making them. We chop the
small pieces and the larger ones are saw cut. Once we do that we
lay the colors on a steel plate, my assistants help me with that
or I'd never get done. There are about 3000 pieces of color in each
piece. Most of the time is spent in preparation, just laying everything
out and getting ready for the blowing process. My assistants are
current students at the school. My main assistant Che Rhodes, graduated
last year, he was hired by the school to help me. He does excellent
work himself. Centre is a small liberal arts college, and I am the
3-D Studio program. I teach ceramics, glass and sculpture. Which
seems pretty normal to me. Other teachers are usually surprised
to hear this, usually they teach glass or ceramics. But I kind of
like doing both, they are just different ways to make art. When
I teach a sculpture class I can use glass, clay, metal or whatever,
and when I teach a glass class I can use other materials as well.
GF: How did you get interested in art?
SP: I was always interested to some degree, but I didn't
necessarily think it would become my life's work. My father was
a playwright, so I was always around creative people. Growing up,
we had a lot of pottery and art objects around the house. I could
tell the good ones from the bad ones at an early age. I didn't decide
to go into the arts until I was a sophomore in college, majoring
in psychology. As a freshman I had taken a backpacking trip around
Europe. In Paris I went to an exhibit of Monet's work. I came back
from that trip knowing that I wanted to be a painter. I also knew
that color was going to be an important part of whatever I did.
GF: How do you feel about the teaching aspect of your work?
SP: I really enjoy the balance of what I do. My strength
as a teacher is not so much standing up in front of a class and
lecturing, but for my serious students. I think my way of teaching
is "osmotic." They see me and they absorb the way I work. I try
to exemplify, what I think it takes to make it professionally, the
hard work, the time I put in, and how I approach my work.
GF: How many students do you have?
SP: It's a very small program. I have 12 students in a glass
class. If I have one or two students a year that are really talented
and can go on, that's pretty good for the size program we have.
We only have 900 students total in the school, but it's a good four
year academic program. I've had several students that are strong
and hopefully, you'll be hearing about them, like Patrick Martin,
who finished at Tulane and was a resident at Pilchuck. He doesn't
work anything like me, he's a caster. I have a lesser known student,
Brook White, who doesn't have an MFA, and is making production type
work. Che Rhodes already had a show at Marta Hewett Gallery. It
took me 40 years to get in there. He got in at age 21.
GF: Your first gallery show, how did that come about?
SP: The very first one was at a local gallery in Birmingham
showing my ceramic work. I really didn't start showing glass until
'85 or '86. I look back at some of my early glass work from 1986
and '87, and at the time I was confident that I was doing good work.
But that confidence was important, otherwise I wouldn't have kept
going. Probably the biggest single show for me was at the Kimzey-Miller
Gallery in Seattle, in 1990, during the Glass Art Society Conference.
I had approached a bunch of galleries and sent them slides and was
rejected. (Maybe my slides were bad). I just fell into this show
at the last minute. It was a good gallery, right across the street
from the new museum. That show opened a lot of doors for me. People
asked me "Where has your work been?" I thought to myself, "I probably
sent you slides but you didn't respond." Maybe they just needed
to see the work in person.
GF: Who are your favorite artists?
SP: My favorite painters. In addition to Monet, whose later,
almost abstract works, I'm especially drawn to and Kenneth Noland
and Mark Rothko, color field painters, just color, no subject matter,
non-representational. In terms of glass artists, the ones that I
most admire are Libensky and Brychtova. I look at their work in
the same way I look at a Rothko painting. Incredible color. I've
often thought that Rothko wouldn't have committed suicide if he
had found glass. He was searching for a way to express himself.
GF: Do you work as much in the summer?
SP: I do most of my work in the summer because that's when
I'm off. We work at night. My studio is small and hot and outside,
under an overhang, so we can't work when it rains. We're hoping
to build a new studio next year.
GF: How functional is the studio?
SP: It's up on the top floor of the art building, kind of
a big porch. It's kind of picturesque but it doesn't function as
well. It could be a lot better. We've designed a new space which
we think could be a national model studio. Right now our fund raisers
are looking for a benefactor, someone who would like their name
on the side of the building.
GF: Is there a lot of interest in glass in that area?
SP: Well, more and more, and we're trying to educate people
in terms of contemporary glass. There are just a few collectors,
the most important ones being Adele and Leonard Leight. They have
the only significant glass collection in the state of Kentucky,
that I know of. They're very generous. I've taken my students to
Louisville and we've even had their collection at Centre for a show.
The school is located out in the middle of nowhere, so anything
like that is so important. I try to combine technical information
and demonstrations and just as importantly, the creative process
and aesthetics. That's what makes good work.
GF: I know you injured yourself, rather severely several
years ago. I'm amazed at your recovery!
SP: Yes, three years ago, I made the front page of the Courier-Journal
twice because of an arm injury. I accidentally put my right arm
though a window and severed all nine clencher tendons, the ulnar
nerve and an artery.
GF: Somebody did a great job putting you back together.
Are you right handed?
SP: Yeah. (Laughter).
GF: How long did it take before you got back to the studio?
SP: They told me it would be a year, if I got back at all.
I was back in four months, but it took me about two more months
to build back up. It's all about motivation and intensive physical
therapy. My hand surgeon has become a great patron of mine. He's
been supportive of the students and of the school I've given a couple
of lectures from the patient's point of view, and next year I'm
suppose to go to the International Hand Conference. (Laughter).