Glass art master Stephen Rolfe Powell has died

Published 9:51 am Sunday, March 17, 2019

Stephen Rolfe Powell (Image from Centre College)

World-renowned glass artist and Centre College professor Stephen Rolfe Powell has died, Centre President John Roush announced Saturday.

“It is with a very heavy heart that I share with you the sad news that Stephen Rolfe Powell has passed away. This is a terrible shock that I know will take all of us much time to process,” according to a statement from Roush posted on social media.

“Stephen was, in a word, one of Centre’s luminaries. His talents were of remarkable proportions, appreciated not only here in Danville and at Centre College but also throughout every corner of the world. He was an outstanding teacher, and all of us who knew him counted our friendship with him as a gift. And, Stephen was a caring and devoted husband and father to Shelly and his children.

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“If there is information to be shared, we will get it to you as soon as possible. Until then, I would ask you to keep his family in your thoughts and prayers and to respect their privacy.”

A “whacko” created by Stephen Rolfe Powell sits on display at his private studio, the former Coca-Cola bottling plant in Danville. (Photo by Ben Kleppinger

Powell, 67, graduated from Centre in 1974 with a degree in ceramics and came back to the college in 1983 to teach, after earning his master’s at Louisiana State University. He went on to found the college’s glass program, which has produced many influential glass artists and businesspeople over the years. Powell’s blown glass art is held in private and public collections around the globe.

His former students include two who are now heads of glass programs at other universities in Louisville and Kansas; others who have opened glass-based businesses; and the director of public glass in San Francisco.

Powell developed a strong friendship with Lino Tagliapietra, an Italian glass-blowing artist known as “The Maestro” and considered to be the greatest glass artist in history. Tagliapietra has visited Centre 11 times to teach and perform.

The Danville community and glass art world reacted to news of Powell’s death with sadness and by celebrating his life and art.

The performance by We Banjo 3 Sunday night at the Norton Center for the Arts on Centre College’s campus was dedicated to Powell’s memory, according to Steve Hoffman, director of the Norton Center.

Stephen Powell uses a forklift and huge suction cups in December to lift a panel of glass out of a custom-built kiln, a step in the creation of his newest series of artworks, titled “zoomers.”

Wilderness Trace Child Development Center in Danville told its followers Powell had supported its mission for many years by providing glass artwork for auctions and hosting special events.

“Stephen’s generosity for our students was one-of-a-kind,” the center wrote. “Hugs and prayers to family and circle of friends. Thank you, sir, for all your good deeds.”

Tom Eblen, a former columnist and managing editor for the Herald-Leader, shared a photo he took of Powell online. “He was a great artist, educator and human being,” Eblen wrote. “He will be missed.”

The Glass Art Society, of which Powell was recently a board member, said it was an “incredible shock” to lose “an amazingly talented glass artist.”

Stephen Powell points out the interaction of colors inside one of his “whackos.” (Photo by Ben Kleppinger)

“We take solace in knowing his legacy lives on through his students, those he mentored and the large body of work Stephen accomplished in his lifetime, which will continue to bring the joy he brought while he was here on earth,” the Glass Art Society wrote. “We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Shelly, and his children.”

Powell’s art is part of an exhibition that opened March 9, “A Life of Light in Glass,” at the Duncan McClellan Gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida. Powell’s last post on his artist’s Facebook page was promoting the exhibit, which is open through April 8.

“We were devastated to learn of the passing of our dear friend, talented artist and mentor, Stephen Rolfe Powell, who made an indelible impression on me and every member of the team here with his tremendous talent, kindness, intelligence and enthusiasm,” wrote Duncan McClellan, himself an accomplish glass artist. “He will be deeply missed by all who had the pleasure of learning from him and the honor of calling him a friend.”

Liz Orndorff with Scarlet Cup Theatre in Danville posted that the pop-up show, “The Glass Menagerie,” has been cancelled due to Powell’s death. The show was set to open in April, and run for two weekends.

“Stephen Powell was the reason we were doing the show, and he was generous enough to allow us to produce it in his lovely glass studio,” Orndorff wrote.

Powell’s sprawling, industrial home base was the old Coca Cola bottling plant in east Danville.

“I never dreamed I would have a space like this,” Powell told The Advocate-Messenger in December, while being profiled for a special publication on influential and valuable community members.

Glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell creates a glass piece in his studio at Centre College in December 2007. (Photo by Kirk Schlea)

Powell developed his worldwide notoriety in the glass art world creating multiple series of brightly colored blown glass artworks, including double-bottomed vases called “teasers;” wide plates that color the surface they’re mounted on called “echoes;” and carefully balanced “whackos” that have an almost-animal-like appearance.

He told The Advocate-Messenger in December he was just hitting his stride on his newest series, “zoomers” — huge curved walls of colored glass he said might be best displayed on the upper floors of skyscrapers where the sun could really shine through.

“It’s a cross between sculpture and painting. It’s definitely something new,” Powell said at the time. “… You just have to work and then one thing leads to the next. I’m more of a blue-collar artist. I just believe in working and then it will lead. If you try to change your work too much, then it will look like you’re trying to change your work.”

Powell said he planned to follow in the footsteps of his 85-year-old friend, Tagliapietra, and continue creating glass art his entire life.

“Why would I ever stop?” he asked. “I’m not a golfer. So I don’t see any end.”

Arrangements are pending at Preston-Pruitt Funeral Home in Danville.



KET will re-air a Kentucky Muse episode later this week featuring the work of Stephen Rolfe Powell. The episode, “Fire and Motion, which originally aired in 2008, features the work of Powell and footage of Powell working on projects with his team. It is scheduled to air on KET on Saturday, March 23, at 5 p.m. It will also air on KETKY on Friday, March 22, at 7 p.m.; and on Sunday, March 24, at 1 p.m.

Stephen Powell walks through the entertaining area of his private studio and workshop, the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in east Danville in December. (Photo by Ben Kleppinger)