Stephen Rolfe Powell ’74: A Tribute

Steve never tried to fashion an artist persona except for about five minutes way back at the beginning when he wondered out loud if he should sign his work “Alabama Powell.” We had a good laugh about it and that was the end of that. Who needs to project a persona when you’re already bursting with individuality? Friends, the mismatched socks, over-the-top work titles, and loud rock soundtracks for demo sessions were just Steve.

He had a Gatsby smile. Maybe you know the passage: “It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” All the old friends will know what I’m talking about. I expect the new do too. I can tell you that Steve had read the passage because it appears on page 54 of Fitzgerald’s novel. Steve was eccentrically well-read. He read the first 100 pages of many bookcases’ worth of books. That’s a good way to read if you’re an artist. For fuel. Steve seldom read endings because he couldn’t be still that long. Books, like sunsets and music, were catalysts to action.

I’ll always think of him as a man in motion, a dynamo, an energy field, a power source. For his and Shelly’s wedding he wanted me to deliver the homily and provide the music—and somehow I managed to just because he believed I could.

That he was so inspiring to be around is what made him such a great team-builder. When I was interviewing all the old glass crews for the biography I wrote for Steve’s career-retrospective book, every single crew member talked about that Powell dynamism. Great work came from it and also great fun. So many stories. The midnight 5Ks, the parody dance video for Shelly, the Norton rooftop baby pool, the 20,000 saplings planted the day after Christmas, the JetSki exploits on the pond, the Isle of Palms crew vacation with shaved heads. And then the shaved-head sunburns.

I knew exactly what the glass crews meant because that’s what the golden Centre tennis team of ’74 felt. We elected our lanky longhaired free-spirit captain by acclamation and to this day “Captain” is his true name as far as we’re concerned. Captain Energy. Captain Cut-Up. His pep talks were as hilarious as his competitive spirit was contagious. We won the conference but what does that matter? Being that band of brothers–including our incomparable professor-coaches Mount and Scarborough–was what it was all about.

All of us who knew Steve are shocked and way down right now. But we all ought to know he’d want us to be sagging and dispirited for maybe a minute or two max. There is nothing good about his slipping out like this, but I’m here to tell you he went out on top of his game. He was still making work as extraordinary as any in his career. The new curved panels called Zoomers are spectacular. Curiously, they’re extreme closeups of the work he’s always made. Place them against bright sunlight and you might think, as I do, of cosmic forces and the dazzle of creation. You’ll also think of the whole panorama of Steve’s glass virtuosity—from Teasers to Whackos to Screamers to Echoes. I even think back to his senior art show when he covered the Norton Foyer with ten-foot canvases of abstract oil paintings. The paint was still wet when they went up, so they changed a bit from day to day.

His work was always evolving. But one thing that never changed was his bedrock character. His Birmingham drawl and old-school courtesy and unfailing generosity of spirit were constants all the 48 years that he was my best friend. He had many, many gifts. One of them was an unforgettable gift for friendship.

by Mark Lucas ’75
March 21, 2019

View Stephen Rolfe Powell’s full obituary.