Sunday, June 29, 2008

Glass art

Screamers, Wackos, Teasers
Artist Stephen Rolfe Powell's wonderful world of glasswork
By Emily Parrino, New Era Features Editor
Saturday, July 5, 2008 12:48 AM CDT

Studded in bands of bead-like murrini, indigo neck stretching upward like warm taffy, the giant glass vessel in the entrance of Cadiz’s Janice Mason Art Museum has the cool elegance of an ice sculpture.

But there’s something wild brewing inside. The title of the piece, “Tropical Sarcastic Cleavage,” might be the first hint of the glass jungle awaiting visitors just around the corner.

Before entering the gallery, visitors are invited to take a seat on the lobby sofas, where a seven-minute video shows Powell and crew at work in their studio.

Some are clad in elbow-high oven mitts, some in space suits. Some wield torches and others heft poles that puncture the stretchy molten gobs of glass, which they manipulate to the beat of a Led Zeppelin soundtrack.

“It looks crazy,” Powell said, “It is.”

There’s not a lot of communication while the music blares. Instead each assistant knows their role, pulsing around the nascent creation. It’s heated to 2,100 degrees, and they must massage it with blow torches to maintain its viability. If the glass drops below 1,000 degrees, Powell explains, the piece will stiffen and shatter. Plenty of the pieces never make it out of the studio.

But for the last move, they turn off the music so they can concentrate. In a span of a minute or two, the 30-pound sculpture gets its finishing touches. Hands muffed in insulated cylinders, Powell coaxes out the flamingo-like neck of the “Screamer” —– his third and most refined series of blown glass pieces, named for their avian qualities.

“We felt like with their posture, they’re more birdlike,” Powell explained. “There’s a potential for them to make a trumpeting or screaming sound.”

But silently now, the crew in the video transfers the nearly finished piece to an 800-degree oven to cool. Later, the base and neck will be cut and smoothed so the vitreous creature can stand on its own, in a permanent gallery or traveling show such as this month’s exhibit at the Janice Mason Art Museum in Cadiz.

Powell, an internationally known artist, teaches glass and ceramics at Centre College in Danville, Ky. His pieces, with personalities and titles like “Pushy Violet Throb” or “Poochy Serpentine Striker,” can sell for tens of thousands of dollars and are on display in metropolitan galleries across the nation.

The curators at JMAM were able to woo him to Cadiz in honor of the museum’s 10-year anniversary. Powell arrived at the museum last weekend to set up the display and give a lecture and book signing at a reception last Friday evening.

His exhibit features “Teasers,” a class of vessels with symmetrical, often lobed bases, with human qualities are from his earliest years of artistry. There are also “Wackos,” asymmetrical and animal-like beings that stand on two curly-cue legs. The graceful-necked “Screamers” are the culmination of Powell’s evolutionary kingdom.

Typically christened with three-word titles, Powell’s pieces seem to follow a nomenclature like Carl Linneaus’ plants. But the artist insists there’s no scientific taxonomy behind “Tangy Winking Orb” or “Frenetic Nubile Nod.” It’s more like a magic kingdom where characters’ names evoke humor and whimsy.

Powell’s work is the product of the American school of glass art. As opposed to the traditional Venetian school, which emphasizes following a standard set of techniques, American glasswork is idea-oriented.

“I don’t think you can achieve the looseness of shape with the traditional, Venetian school of glass blowing,” Powell said.

Which is not to say Powell and his assistants shirk all things traditional. Layers of thousands of bead-like murrini that lend his pieces the look of eons of geological strata are the most time-consuming feature of every piece.

“A lot of work is done outside the hotshop,” he said. “There’s probably 12 to 20 hours in a piece for making murrini.”

To create the tiny beads, the glassmakers heat softball sized blobs of colored glass, wrapping one color around another then stretching the hot hailstone into a long rod, which is allowed to cool.

“Then we spend hours chopping them into pieces of uniform width,” Powell explained. The resulting beads, some the size of gems, others the size of cookies cut from a rolled out “dough” are arranged on a flat surface in intricate patterns and eventually sheath the molten glass. As the glass is blown, contorted and stretched, the murrini are transformed as the sculptured “buns,” “pooches,” “orbs” and “puffers” come to life.

Despite the use of traditional murrini to texture and color his pieces, Powell maintains his uniqueness in a relatively new field, trailblazed by American glass artists like Dale Chihully.

“Nobody else in the world works like this,” Powell said of his methods.

And it’s a good thing; “It’s easier to copy someone who works in the traditional way.”

As a teacher, he shows his students examples of copycat artists, then he urges them not to become one.

“Teaching technique is the easy part,” he said. “The challenge for me as a teacher is to develop students as artists with their own style and way of working.”

Many of his students go on to do just that. Che Rhodes left Powell’s tutelage to become the head of the glass department at the University of Louisville, the only other glass program in the state.

In Powell’s hotshop, the evolution from Teaser to Wacko to Screamer seems to have paused for now. But those who enjoy the vitreous safari at JMAM might be interested in what the future holds. Powell’s next big project involves a hanging menagerie of glass pieces. For his first installation, the artist envisions 350 10-inch pieces suspended from the rotunda of the Danville library.

“It will funnel out, made of individual pieces that will be a solid color, stacked close to each other like murrini,” he said. “It will be like being inside one of my pieces.”

QuickInfo: Stephen Powell Retrospective

Blown glass pieces by internationally renowned artist Stephen Rolfe Powell will be on display through Sept. 14 at the Janice Mason Art Museum on Main Street in Cadiz. Powell is a professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky. The exhibit celebrates of the museum’s 10th anniversary.

Emily Parrino can be reached at 270-887-3235 or

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