What We Talked About When We Talked About Art: Stephen Rolfe Powell
by Rhonda Reeves
“For a long time, I think it was almost considered an ugly word to talk about beauty as being a valid part of art. I think my work is about beauty.”
—Stephen Rolfe Powell
I’m tempted to paraphrase Raymond Carver. Which is to say, I ought to be ashamed when I talk like I know what I’m talking about when I talk about art.
As if art isn’t a slippery enough concept, the logical jumping-off point for discussing Stephen Powell’s work is the equally elusive notion of beauty.
His pieces are the result of the perfect marriage of fire, split second timing, and explosions of combined color that even nature hasn’t thought of yet. “Beautiful” seems an inadequate description for the end products which have names like “Tangerine Cheeks Smith,” and “Tacit Scream Johnson.”
Herein lies the danger. As he and I discussed, once you venture into such realms as beauty, the elements, the mystic, etc., you risk running into the bane of every artist. It’s not pretense; it’s not artifice, or duplicity (all bad things). It’s the ultimate sin, of cheesiness. I told him about some artist’s press releases we had recently run across… And he bashfully handed over his artist’s statement, qualifying it with, “it’s probably cheesy too.”
In his statement, he talks about the pyromaniacal appeal of glass blowing, and the human qualities in his work. He says, “Museums and galleries may not like it, but I encourage viewers to touch my pieces. I must admit that I take a certain delight in catching a viewer fondling one of my pieces.”
While I can’t speak for the galleries, I’ve long told him that the first thing people are drawn to at my house is a Stephen Powell piece on one of the mantles. And while I certainly don’t encourage random fondling of Art in my living room, Powell’s work inevitably invites it anyway.
Although Powell has been a familiar figure on the international art scene for some time, he garnered the lion’s share of regional publicity not for his work, but for the accident that could have ended his career in 1991.
He said, “it wasn’t the way I wanted to make the cover of the Courier-Journal,” adding that his friends were quick to tell him it’s probably “the only way” he’d ever make the cover of the Courier Journal.
Powell was working in the studio at Centre College (where he is associate professor of art) in the summer of 1991. When he tried to open a window to let a bird fly out, the glass shattered — slicing through the tendons and an artery in Powell’s right arm. Many feared that the injury would end his work in glass blowing — an intensely physical process which requires the artist to hold and maneuver a heavy pipe to shape the molten glass into colored vessels which give off a stained glass effect.
Thanks to the efforts of a skilled hand surgeon, and a lengthy period of physical therapy, Powell has recovered to the point that he can fully “adjust and compensate,” although he still experiences nearly chronic pain from the injury. He admits the irony isn’t lost on him that “the glass got me.”
The experience was one of two times in Powell’s career when he was forced to stand by as a “designer,” while others actually executed his work. The accident made him face the prospect of “never working again…or at least not working in the way I had been,” and echoed all too vividly elements of his sabbatical in Russia (which has since been written up by wags everywhere as “Glass-nost”).
In 1990, he spent “two long hard months” in the then-Soviet Union. He explained that glassblowing there was rooted in the Eastern European factory tradition.” Artists there serve as designers, while gaffers and master technicians actually execute the pieces.
In St. Petersburg, he lectured and demonstrated at the Mukhina Art Institute, where the students were shocked to find that he actually worked with the glass himself.
He explained to them that he couldn’t design it without working it — that a piece is the result of “direct connection with the work — how you move — the gestures of the body.”
Once the students got a taste of that process, they were soon demanding hands-on experience as well. Powell says, “I created a lot of problems for that system.”
Asked what role he played in the subsequent (coincidental…?) demise of the Soviet Union, he modestly refused to acknowledge any responsibility.
During the sabbatical, the Mukhina Institute also presented two of Powell’s pieces to the Hermitage, the renowned Soviet art museum. (His pieces are the only American glass in the collection.)
Powell tried briefly to adapt to the Eastern European tradition while working at the Red May Glass Factory in Vishny Volochok, Russia and found the experience “absolutely frustrating.”
He would return to his hostel room in the evenings, where he managed to ration one bottle of Jack Daniels and two bottles of Coke (which rapidly lost their carbonation) over the course of two weeks. He considers that a pretty apt metaphor for the “bleak” moments of the trip.
From a discussion of one totalitarian regime to another, this seemed to be the logical segue to the goals of the current Republican Congress — which are apparently to stamp out art as we know it.
Powell likens “the plight of [American] artists in jeopardy,” to the way it’s always been for artists in Eastern Europe. Are we regressing? With today’s political climate, Powell says, “I feel fortunate to be established. But I worry about people coming up now — taking risks, finding their way. This [environment] may halt artists’ development. The whole thing may be turned over to the private sector. And there aren’t too many private patrons willing to take their ego out of the patronage process.”
He finds the narrow-mindedness of politicians to be a part of the “exact same process that drives racism.” We talked about the controversy surrounding the NEA (e.g., Mapplethorpe, Serrano’s Piss Christ, etc.). He said, “Mapplethorpe stirred up discussion, which is probably healthy. Every generation needs to be stirred up. Art has many roles.”
And it’s as legitimate a recipient of government support as anything else. Powell says, “I could talk about where I’d like my tax dollars to go; I’d like to drive all my money to the NEA, but this is a democracy and that’s not the way it works. And I accept that.”
We then talked about the fact that beauty will always find its way in the marketplace, but is that the only legitimate function of art?
He acknowledged that Jesse Helms makes him “nervous.” Powell aptly illustrated the enormity of the current crisis when he pointed out that “the times are remembered for what the artists do…not what the business people do.”
At least our era will have Powell’s work to recommend it.
The opening reception for Stephen Powell’s Lexington exhibit is Friday April 21 at the Galbreath Gallery in the National City Plaza on Main. There will be an informal studio visit and pyrotechnic glass blowing demonstration by Powell on Saturday, April 29, 1995 in Danville from 8 to 9:30 am.
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