Fire and Motion

Episode #201 | First Aired: December 21, 2008

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Stephen Rolfe Powell describes his artistic process as “everything at once with gravity and centrifugal force—like having the 20 years it might take to grow a tree happen in just a few moments before your eyes.” A visit to Powell’s studio is joined with a profile of another renowned Kentucky artist—automata artist Steve Armstrong—in the Kentucky Muse documentary “Fire and Motion.”

In the hourlong program these two visionary Kentucky artists discuss and demonstrate the methods and insights expressed in their works.

Powell, a professor of art at Centre College in Danville, creates spectacular glass sculptures—vessels of fantastic, attention-grabbing shapes decked in flashing, vibrant color. His career in glass has developed around his own high-energy and performance-driven passion for art. Kentucky Muse visits him in his element—the fast-paced yet smoothly executed dance of creation in the glass studio he helped construct on Centre’s campus. You’ll see some examples of his work and how it is made, and you’ll also hear from some of the students, faculty, and artists his fiery glass has helped to inspire.

If fire is the domain of Powell, Steve Armstrong’s focus is on movement and interactivity between art work and viewer. His automata sculpture pieces combine an elegant sense of detail and design with imagination. Armstrong specializes in animated sculpture, or, as he puts it, “automata.” According to automata.co.uk, automata, “sometimes referred to as Mechanical Toys or Kinetic Art, are marvelous small machines that utilize most of the mechanical processes which can be found in almost every modern machine employing cams, gears, ratchets and cranks.”

Sculpting from wood of various grains, textures, and colors, Armstrong creates works based on simple mechanisms that offer the observer a chance to add his or her own energy to the art. With the viewer’s help, the objects within the sculpture move, often revealing surreal scenes and some bizarre creatures.

Armstrong’s work has been procured by galleries, educational institutions, and museums throughout the country. Here’s how the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco describes Armstrong’s automata: “They stand tall, they whirl and spin, and they open to reveal an amazing sense of humor.” Kentucky Muse travels to Armstrong’s home studio, observes the craftsman at work, and introduces viewers to the interactive and whimsical fun of animated sculpture.

What motivates artists and drives their passion? How does a work of art move from concept and idea to the physical end product and what happens in between? Find out as Kentucky Muse’s “Fire and Motion” brings you into the heart of the action for two inventive and inspired Kentucky artists.

Meet the Artist

In the Classroom

This program combines profiles of two talented Kentucky artists. The profiles can be used separately or together in the classroom.

If both are used, the program is an excellent foundation for a class discussion comparing and contrasting the two artists, their works, and their processes. Use the following questions as a basis for discussion:

  • What type of art does each artist produce? Whose work is reflected by the “Fire” in the title and whose by the “Motion.” Do these words fit their work?
  • Do the two artists and their works have anything in common?
  • How do their processes differ? Do the artists work alone? If not, how do others contribute to their processes?

The program can also be used to compare and contrast how the artists’ stories are told in the “Fire and Motion” program.

  • What do you learn about each artist?
  • How is the artist’s story told? Who is interviewed? What is shown? How does the storyline flow? How effective is each approach?
  • What do you not learn about the artists that you would like to know?
  • In what other way could the artists’ stories have been told?

Online Lesson Plan

The Visual Arts Toolkit includes a segment on glassblower Stephen Rolfe Powell. If you do not have a toolkit you can preview this lesson plan at the Arts Toolkit web site.

The Arts Toolkit web site also includes a lesson plan The Art and Science of Glass.

You could adapt this lesson plan for use with the “Fire and Motion” program.