Through the Looking Glass

The art and legacy of Stephen Rolfe Powell

By Laura Ross
Photos by Kathryn Harrington

His art was breathtaking – delicate riots of color and light that could never be duplicated. His glass blown art was a mix of fire and swirls of dizzying colors. He had an eye for exquisite creations that grace museums, businesses and private collections. Friends colleagues and the art world’s hearts were shattered like thrown glass when Stephen Rolfe Powell died suddenly one year ago at the age of 67 at the apex of his incredible career.

“He loved what he did, and his work reflects that joy,” said friend and collector Terri Bass.

A native of Birmingham, Alabama, the popular and gregarious Powell was not only a world-renowned glass artist but a friend, teacher, husband and father. Powell studied at Danville’s Centre College and received a Master’s in Fine Arts from Louisiana State University.

He returned to Centre College in 1983, where he founded the school’s glass program and was a beloved art professor. He built two hot working studios, worked with international glass experts and crafted his molten art into spectacular glassworks for nearly 40 years. His art was exhibited across the world and can be found in several museums, including the Speed Art Museum. Powell showcased his glass sculpting methods as part of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and was featured at the Venezia Aperto Vetro in the Murano glass showplace of Venice, Italy.

A favorite son of Kentucky, Powell was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year in 1999 and 2000. He was given the Acorn Award by the Kentucky Council on Post-Secondary Education in 2004 and the Distinguished Educator Award from the James Renwick Alliance in Washington, D.C.  He also was awarded the Sixth Annual Rude Osolnik Award for Kentucky’s Most Accomplished Community Craftsperson in 2001 and was presented with an award from the Governor’s Award in the Arts in 2010. Centre College named him 2003’s Distinguished Alumnus and inducted him into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011 for his accomplishments as a college tennis player.

“I first saw his pieces at a friend’s home 30 years ago and was mesmerized by the way light varied the experience of the artwork,” said Bass. “It also seemed very fluid and sensual. His passion for his work and the joy of sharing with others stayed constant.”

Powell cultivated a close relationship with the Samuels family – founders of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky – that began several years ago when he was commissioned to create a rare piece for the distillery.

A 43-piece glass art exhibition was in the works for 2019 at Maker’s Mark, but sadly, Powell did not live to see it happen. With his family’s permission, Maker’s Mark moved forward with the exhibition in Powell’s honor. From August through November 2019, distillery visitors were treated to the art. Many of the pieces were in Powell’s private collection and had never been displayed in public.

“The exhibition of Stephen’s work that we were privileged to host at Maker’s Mark was wonderfully received by our visitors, just as we knew it would be,” said Rob Samuels, Maker’s Mark chief operating officer. “We’d like to think that Stephen would have been pleased, as well, since we followed his notes meticulously that he made when we started planning it together in 2018.”

“Aloof Pugnacious Swooper.”

Along with Powell’s art, several other glass artists from around the world donated pieces to the exhibition, including several hand-crafted bourbon bottles in honor of Powell. Those were auctioned at the end of the exhibition to raise funds for the Stephen Rolfe Powell Memorial Fund at Centre College.

Close friend Mark Lucas told Centre College’s alumni publication in 2019 that Powell had “a Gatsby smile,” and described him as “a man in motion, a dynamo, an energy field, a power source.”

Rob Samuels agreed. “His creative vision and passionate attention to detail fit in perfectly at the distillery, and we’re honored now to have two more of his pieces on permanent display here, reminding us of the deep connection we’ve had with him for so many years.”

Stephen Rolfe Powell is missed by many, but his light shines on through the colorful prisms of his glass masterpieces. V

Stephen Rolfe Powell. Photo by Kirk Schlea.

Lemon Yellow Frenzy.”

Zoomers. Photo courtesy of Maker’s Mark