Blow Out. Millennium exhibit celebrates blood, sweat, and hot glass

Blow Out. Millennium exhibit celebrates blood, sweat, and hot glass

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BY KARA FITZGERALD

Stephen Rolfe Powell’s glass vessels seduce their viewers. The smooth, curvaceous bulbs hint at erogoneous zones and taunt the senses.
Buttocks, breasts, and testicles are represented in a sensual and erotic manner, causing many viewers to want to fondle his creations (an impulse, but not a practice, he welcomes).
And with names like “Undulating Groan Jones,” “Teasing Buns Johnson,” and “Lucid Lips Smith,” you can hardly blame the curious viewers.
“I’ve never been interested in representational art. I appreciate it, but I’ve never wanted to make pieces that tell a story or make a political statement because, for me, that’s too easy,” Powell says of why he chose the vessel as his sculptural form.
“I’ve always been fascinated with what are called abstract expressionists — which I think is a misnomer, because they’re not really abstract, they’re non-representational. The use of color is not abstracted from anything. Color and form can make a statement on their own.”
Beauty is Powell’s ultimate goal when creating a piece, even though he says, “That’s still a dirty word… it’s ‘ugly and controversial and shocking.’ Look at Dada and surrealism…the shock value is the key issue and so maybe in a way doing things that are beautiful is controversial.”
“The search for color is what my work is mainly about,” Powell says of his passion for glassblowing.
Created by thousands of murrini beads, the hot orange and reds, cool blues and purples, and luscious greens and lavenders form a textured mosaic on the vessels’ surfaces. They swirl around the glass like cotton candy, the process being similar to a taffy-pull — exploding in random places with bursts of unexpected colors. He is one of the few people in the country who has mastered this technique which ultimately results in something like a stained glass window effect.

“I was a painter at first in ceramics, but glass just offers ways to deal with color that no other medium does, so that’s what drew me into it…plus I love fire.”
A self-confessed pyromaniac, the whole process for Powell is like an addiction which feeds his craving for high adrenaline rushes.
“It’s like a drug… to create is like a drug for me,” Powell confirms.
“What drives me more than having the finished work is the high — being in there making the work,” Powell emphasizes.
The last blowout is the most critical and is the climax of the whole process according to Powell. The piece blows out from about a 10″-12″ cylinder and transforms into the finished pieces which are sometimes five feet tall, and all of this happens in roughly 30 seconds.
Only about one in five survive, meaning they make the technical grade, they don’t shatter, and they work aesthetically.
One drop of sweat could ruin the piece. This strenuous stage separates art from broken glass.
“It’s just part of the process — you learn to deal with that when you deal with glass,” says a calm Powell. “We’re on the edge of losing the work 90 percent of the time. That’s what makes it exciting. We want to let the glass, fire, and heat do its thing.”

One of Powell’s latest pieces is at the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery’s exhibit entitled, Millennium Glass: An International Survey of Studio Glass. Seventy of the world’s top glass artists will be represented, including internationally renowned glass maker and designer Lino Tagliapietra and Marvin Lipofsky, one of the very early figures in the contemporary glass movement.
“To be able to work with these two artists [Lipofsky and Tagliapietra] is the ultimate. I admired them when I was struggling to show work anywhere,” recalls Powell.
“I actually assisted Lino at a school called Pilchuck in Seattle, but I don’t even think he probably knew who I was. Of course, he’ll say that he remembers me ’cause he’s such a gentleman,” chuckles Powell.
“When I’m talking to my students about the feel of his pieces, and they have a real sensual quality about them, I generally compare his work to Georgia O’Keefe paintings.”
For the exhibit, artists were asked to design a glasswork reflecting their views of the new millennium. Powell has been working with Brion Clinkingbeard, Kentucky Art and Craft Director of Exhibitions and Curator, and Adele Light, a glass collector, in organizing this event.
“We wanted to do a special show for the millennium, and we had some good resources, so we thought ‘let’s invite the best artists in the world,'” says Clinkingbeard. “We’re mostly surprised that almost everybody we asked said yes. We’re really trying to promote the art form.”
“The show’s going to be a knockout,” affirms Powell. “This event is certainly the highlight of my teaching career.”