Last winter, the acclaimed glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell was in the midst of planning a major exhibition of his work — not in a gallery or museum, as might have been expected, but in a more surprising place: the Maker’s Mark Distillery, from 40 miles west of Powell’s studio at Centre College in Danville.
It made more sense than you might think. Several years ago, Maker’s Mark had commissioned a bespoke piece from him, with the company’s famous name incorporated into the sculpture’s multicolored surface; it remains on display to this day at the distillery’s busy gift shop. Later on, Powell created a trophy for the Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland.
“We had a relationship with him,” says Maker’s Mark’s Jeff Berry. “So when we offered him the opportunity to do a distillery-wide exhibit, he was super into it.”
Excited by the prospect of showing his elegant, sometimes whimsical glass sculptures in such a nontraditional venue — especially one that draws a steady stream of visitors from around the world — Powell started making notes about exactly how and where his pieces should be displayed in and around Maker’s Mark’s visitors’ center, grounds and warehouses.
And then, on March 16, he died, unexpectedly, at the age of 67.
But plans for the exhibition lived on. And although its creator did not live to see it, the show — installed in the manner Powell envisioned in his notes and sketches — is now available for public viewing at the distillery through Nov. 30.
The exhibit also features pieces by several of Powell’s former students, whose work will be auctioned off at the show’s end to benefit a memorial fund at Centre College that will help art students there continue their studies.
“Steve didn’t normally display his work outside a gallery setting, but he very much wanted this show to happen,” says Maker’s Mark’s Roy Lee Wigginton, a Centre College graduate. “So we’re honoring the plan he had going.”
The majority of the pieces in the show — all lit from behind, which makes their gemlike colors and intricate patterns glow with an otherworldly richness — are displayed in a pristine, white-walled gallery in the distillery’s visitors’ center. It’s the classic treatment for Powell’s work, which brings a distinctly American ingenuity and panache to the centuries-old Italian glass-blowing tradition centered on the Venetian island of Murano.
But as the artist foresaw, there’s an added value — a shock value of sorts — in viewing the pieces in special nooks inside the Maker’s Mark warehouse, where visitors touring the facility come unexpectedly face to face with Stephen Rolfe Powell’s quirky, gleaming masterpieces amid the somber rows of barrels in which one of the world’s favorite whiskeys is aged.
“He especially loved the idea of just tucking some of the pieces in among the barrels,” Wigginton says of Powell. “He wanted the surprise and delight the viewer gets from the juxtaposition of all that color against the muted tones in the warehouse.”
The staggered organization of the exhibit — which amounts to a career retrospective, with about 45 pieces representing all of his major series, including the symmetrically bulging Teasers, the Whackos with their three points of contact, the Screamers and the Zoomers — allows for a grand finale in a large theater-like space surrounded by thousands of barrels of Maker’s Mark.
There, without any warning, the viewer is treated to the grand spectacle of 10 grouped pieces from Powell’s Echo series, which features large platter-like works meant, almost uniquely in the artist’s body of work, to be lit from the front. Massed here in panoramic fashion, the pieces commandeer the light passing through them in radiating rings, pooling on the display wall itself, to extend their reach.
The effect is of a secret garden of nocturnal flowers pulsing with color in the dark, or of a gorgeous fleet of unidentified flying objects nearing Earth, bringing news from another world.
Somewhere out there, an artist is grinning ear to ear.
Stephen Rolfe Powell
Where: Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto
When: Now through Nov. 30
Tickets: $10-$14 as part of the Maker’s Mark Distillery tour