The internationally-known glass artist and Centre College professor Stephen Rolfe Powell has died, Centre College officials confirmed this weekend.
In a statement posted to the Centre College Facebook page Saturday night, Centre College President John Roush said Powell, 67, who has received several accolades for his work including the Artist Award for the Governor’s Awards in the Arts, had passed away.
Powell died unexpectedly Saturday, according to a partial obituary. Preston Pruitt Spurlin Funeral Home in Danville is handling the funeral arrangements.
“This is a terrible shock and I know will take all of us much time to process,” Roush said. “Stephen was in, 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.”
Powell won awards both as an artist and as a professor at Centre, where he began teaching in 1983, according to the Centre College web site.
He was named 1999 and 2000 Kentucky Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). In 2004, he received the Acorn Award for outstanding professor at a Kentucky college or university.
But it was his work as a hot-glass artist that brought him international acclaim and attention.
Powell was one of eight Americans chosen for Venezia Aperto Vetro 1998, a prestigious glass exhibition in Venice, Italy. His work is included in many permanent collections around the world, according to his biography on Centre College’s web site.
He also had a long association with mentor and friend Lino Tagliapietra, a Venetian glass master who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Centre College.
Powell and the Centre College art program is also credited with starting the careers of many of the most well-known glass artists in Kentucky and across the country. Artists who credit Powell for sparking their interest in art and glass include Brook White Jr. , a Louisville-based glass artist, and Che Rhodes, an associate professor at the University of Louisville who started the university’s glass program.
On the Centre College Facebook page, Powell’s former students, friends and colleagues lauded his down-to-earth Southern hospitality and his oversized artistic talent.
Chris Cathers, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, wrote: “Stephen was truly one of the Commonwealth’s great arts ambassadors. He will be missed by all of us who were inspired by his great talent and friendship.”
The artists at The Kentucky Crafted Market at the Kentucky Horse Park observed a moment of silence to honor Powell before the market opened Sunday, Kentucky Arts Council officials said.
Seth Brewer, a former student, wrote on Facebook, “The chance to learn the rudiments of glassblowing under him was a highlight of my entire academic and life experience. I want to say so much more but I am otherwise speechless.”
Powell has also been featured on national television programs including CBS “Sunday Morning” and in various popular print and arts-based national magazines.
In an interview in 2010, Powell told the Lexington Herald-Leader he was baffled and humbled by his success. He didn’t start working with hot glass until he was 28.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” he said. “I like fire and excitement and spontaneity and I have an athletic background. So glass was just it.”
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Powell attended Centre College as an undergraduate. After graduation, he moved back to Birmingham and taught at his former high school. After receiving an M.F.A. from Louisiana State University, he eventually returned to Centre College as a professor in 1983.
He was an avid and accomplished tennis player and gardener who frequently had students and colleagues to his home for dinner, his colleagues said.
When Professor Judith Pointer Jia moved to Centre in 1998, Powell not only found her an apartment but helped her move. Jia is chair of the Humanities and Arts program at Centre.
“He brought a crew of students over to help unload my U-Haul,” Jia said. “ When my car broke down that week, he loaned me his pickup to drive while mine was in the shop.”
Powell was also a driven artist who built Centre College’s glass studio using donations from various business including Corning Glass in Harrodsburg, Phillips Lighting in Danville and Corhart in Louisville.
“He was an exceptional person and the hardest working artist I’ve known – utterly committed to developing, producing and getting his artwork out there,” Jia said.
But the entire community shared in Powell’s success, she said.
“He generously donated his work to charity auctions, helping numerous foundations and even the preschool in Danville that his and my children attended,” she said.
His knowledge of how to harness heat and fire to create art was also put to good use every July 4, his friends said.
“For years on the Fourth of July, he, along with daredevil friends and studio assistants, put on one of the loudest, most elaborate, private fireworks displays in the area,” Jia said. “ He was a great guy, who expected a lot of himself. He will be greatly missed.”
When asked in 2010 what he hoped people would see when they looked at his art, Powell said a sense of peace.
“I hope my work makes you step back and take a breath and pull away from the rest of the world and just have a moment of pleasure,” he said.
Powell is survived by his wife and two children.