Professor receives Kentucky’s highest honor in the arts
August 26, 2010 By Marla Sweitzer
recipient of The Artist Award by the Governor’s Awards in the
Arts, which recognizes a lifetime achievement in the arts by an
artist in any discipline who is a resident of Kentucky.
Powell, who graduated from Centre in 1974, has been teaching
at the College since 1983. This year marks the 25th anniversary
of the Centre College glass program.
Powell says that “the precariousness of glass draws me to it.”
Centre professor of art Stephen Powell was recently named this year’s recipient of The Artist Award by the Governor’s Awards in the Arts, the commonwealth’s highest honor in the arts. The award recognizes a lifetime achievement by an artist in any discipline who is a resident of Kentucky.
The Kentucky Arts Council coordinated the nomination and selection process through a panel in the Governor’s Office. Powell and the other recipients will be honored by Gov. Steve Beshear at a public ceremony and celebration this October in Frankfort.
Powell unabashedly doesn’t define himself as an artist; rather, he tells people he works with glass. “I’m hesitant to use the term ‘artist’ to describe myself,” he says. “When I talk of artists, I feel they have achieved a certain level in their work. I’m still working to get there.”
Arts based on traditional craft (including glass), once classified as minor and decorative arts, are increasingly being recognized as cutting edge in the art world.
The glassblowing scene in Kentucky is a direct result of Powell’s presence and efforts. Though born in Alabama, Powell has spent more than half of his life in the bluegrass state and views the award as a recognition of his Kentucky home. “It solidifies my transition into being a Kentuckian,” he says.
Powell, who graduated from Centre in 1974, began his artistic endeavors with painting as an undergraduate, and he continues to draw inspiration from the abstract expressionists and color field painters, including Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland.
Painting felt like a dead end for Powell, and he became interested in three dimensional art through ceramics. “I liked the idea of using my hands and the process of making and firing,” he says. Add in the capacity for expressing pure emotions through color alongside pyrotechnics, and Powell found his ideal artistic medium.
“You can’t make anything ugly,” he says. “Glass is beautiful in itself.”
Powell was first exposed to glassblowing in graduate school, and he recollects that “you couldn’t say you wanted to make beautiful objects.” Yet it is aesthetics and beauty that Powell focuses on in his traditional vessel forms. The opaque and transparent nature of glass enables Powell to interact with light and experiment with color.
Even though he seeks to make beautiful, brightly colored works, Powell notes that an artist does have a social responsibility to affect the viewer. “An artist has a responsibility to make the world a better place,” he says.
Glassblowing is not an endeavor for the introvert. As a glassblowing artist, a completed vessel is the product of a team of individuals assisting in production. In Powell's case, designer and technician merge in the creation of a glassblowing piece. It is the moment of artistic creation, alongside his team, that provides Powell with the adrenalin that keeps him returning to the studio.
His glass-blowing process is extreme as well as unique, with high platforms used to stand on to swing out a piece, elongating the neck, or distorting a side. The physical process forces Powell to interact with the material itself and his team, while also pushing his introverted tendencies as an artist outward. Powell notes that if he were here by himself everyday, he probably wouldn’t show up.
“That’s the draw—the spontaneity of the material, the tension of working; it all helps to put you in the moment,” he says. “We work for these moments.”
Indeed, for the self-professed pyromaniac, glassblowing is therapy.
For Powell, creating a piece of art is also balanced with teaching and the upkeep of the glass studio. While he has had the opportunity to leave the teaching profession and work exclusively as a professional artist, he observes that interacting with students helps him understand more about his own work. “It keeps my mind fresher and sharper,” he says.
While teaching students how to infuse their work with their surroundings and what is personal and unique to them, Powell continues to ask himself the same questions. “I’m always changing and struggling with how students can infuse their life in their work,” he says.
Powell is currently in the process of moving his at-home business operations to a new studio space in Danville. Located in an old Coca-Cola plant, the 23,000 square feet space will provide Powell with a venue for photographing his work, as well as inventory and display space. In the long-term, Powell would like to add a hot-shop. The glassblower, who is on sabbatical for a portion of the year, will spend the time creating and working on the new professional endeavor.
As an artist, glass keeps Powell humble. “The precariousness of glass draws me to it,” he says. “You shouldn’t put too much value in permanence. Like life, it’s fragile.”
To view a Sights and Sounds feature about Centre mathematics students working with Powell in the glass studio, click here.