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Stephen Rolfe Powell

Stephen Rolfe Powell (1951-2019)

We are celebrating the life of one of the great American glass artists, Stephen Rolfe Powell who died suddenly at his home in Kentucky on March 16 at the age of 67. Steve was due to demonstrate at the Glass Art Society conference in St. Petersburg on March 30, where I was looking forward to meeting him. We made contact while I was researching the Art on Fire exhibit at WMODA, which he kindly shared on his Facebook page. He was pleased to hear that four of his massive works are a huge attraction in our Hot Glass gallery at WMODA.

Teasers, Whackos, Screamers & Zoomers

The wacky titles of Steve’s work conjure up his exuberant personality. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, his southern drawl inspired his students with his humor, kindness and encouragement.  Steve founded the glass program and state-of-the-art studio at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky in 1985. He has been recognized nationally as an amazing teacher and acclaimed as Educator of the Year in 2012 by the James Renwick Alliance in Washington DC.

Steve studied ceramics before discovering hot glass which became his full-time obsession. His legendary energy and vigor enabled him to make monumental vessels in colorful murrini patterns.  He was intrigued by irregular shapes in nature, which are swollen or puffed, including fruits and vegetables, such as okra which he grew on his farm.  Often his bold, textured organic forms are playful and whimsical. The long necks of his vessels reference the postures and liveliness of cranes, storks and other long-necked creatures in nature.

Color also stimulated him, particularly the brilliant sunrises and sunsets at his beloved Kentucky home. His color effects reflect the abstract expressionist paintings that he was doing in the 1970s before he discovered glass. His hope was that his audience would “take a very close look (microscopic) at the details, a somewhat cellular structuring of colored patterns that can be found throughout nature and science. I hope viewing both from afar and close-up, gives everyone a reprieve from whatever they might be dealing with, even just for a moment.”

Steve was inspired by the traditional glassblowing techniques of the Murano Maestros, notably his great friend and mentor Lino Tagliapietro, the subject of a film that he co-produced. Steve participated in the landmark GAS conference in Murano last year where he was thrilled with the cross-cultural experience linking the Italian and American glass worlds in a single event. He said of this momentous occasion “I've been in glass for a long time, and this was the most important and exciting event in my whole life.”

As well as his vital links with Venice, the city of glass, Steve exhibited his work widely around the world and held workshops to guide new generations of glass workers and artists. His breathtaking demonstrations were astonishing in their sheer physicality, technical challenges and intensity of scale. His awards, recognitions, accolades and distinctions are too numerous to list in detail. His book Stephen Rolfe Powell: Glassmaker was published in 2005 and was granted the award for Overall Excellence by the South Eastern Library Association.

The “benign Pied Piper of hot glass in Kentucky” lived a joyful, impressive and awe-inspiring life. After a freak accident with a glass window pane in 1991, Steve said at the time, "It's really paradoxical that glass got me…I can't imagine living without being able to do my work." Fortunately, he was able to continue sharing his passion for glass for a further quarter century. Our thoughts are with his family and friends around the world at this sad time.
-Louise Irvine

“Working with my crew, not distracted by anything, being able to totally focus on the hot mass of molten glass on the end of the pipe, mesmerized by the pattern of murrine, this is what I want, time stands still or, at least, goes to slow motion. Working in the zone!”

-Stephen Rolfe Powell

“I have always been intrigued by the emotive potential of color and its ability to have a positive intrinsic efect on the viewer.  I am interested in creating a pleasurable experience for the viewer that is based on beauty.”

-Stephen Rolfe Powell

“I was drawn to the process of glassblowing because of the immediacy and intensity.  I have always been something of a pyromaniac, as my background in ceramics was mostly involved with the raku firing.  I do have a love of fire.”

-Stephen Rolfe Powell