Ceramic Industry

PPP: Brilliant Possibilities

March 1, 2011
One artist has taken two very basic elements--glass and light--and developed his own extraordinary style of art.

"Self-Portrait - Spring" is part of Knapp's personal collection.


"Fandango" is a private commission, Allentown, Pa.

In the art world, innovation is encouraged and embraced. Glass artists, potters, painters and sculptors are always vying to use the latest material or sample the newest technique. But how often do critics and collectors encounter an entirely new genre of art?

In 2000, artist Stephen Knapp introduced the lightpainting, which has no known precedent in art history. Essentially, Knapp has taken two very basic elements--glass and light--and developed an extraordinary style of art that is all his own. Through his creations, he hopes to share his fascination with the nearly limitless possibilities of painting with light.

"Social Commentary" was created for the Boise Art Museum in Boise, Idaho, where it is currently on display.

Artistic Ambitions

Knapp, who comes from Worcester, Mass., first started working with light when he graduated from Hamilton College in 1969. His work as a fine art photographer allowed him to experiment with the interplay of light and dark. Although he was successful in this endeavor and often accepted commissions to work with well-known architects and interior designers, Knapp wanted to try his hand at other artistic ventures.

Despite the fact that he had 10 years' experience as a working artist, Knapp recognized that his education was far from complete. During this interlude from photography, he began to research new mediums; ceramic, metal and glass especially held his interest, and he used these materials to create a number of large-scale commissioned murals over the next several years.

Knapp continued to take advantage of the kinetic effect that light has on his work while he tested a variety of new techniques. "People think that I just sprang from the womb and created the lightpaintings out of nowhere. It didn't happen that way," he says. A great deal of study and practice with the properties of refracted light was necessary before the lightpaintings were presented to the public.

"First Symphony" is installed at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.

The Evolution of the Lightpainting

Knapp's output through the 1990s included many large kiln-formed art glass walls, including the largest, most detailed kiln-formed art glass walls in the world at the University of Nebraska. As he continued to push other mediums, he created 180 ft of carved slate and mosaic tile murals for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and a carved marble and kiln-formed glass installation for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

In 1994, Knapp was given the opportunity to create an exhibit for the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, Ill. As may be evidenced by the title, "Fantasy in Glass" was a valuable inspiration for the lightpaintings of the future. In the 5000-square-foot exhibit, Knapp demonstrated the possibilities of kiln-formed glass in an architectural scope in addition to creating a series of glass and steel sculpture and furniture. "I worked with a lot of architects at that time as well," he says. "I have always been fascinated with the intersection of art, architecture and design." It was here that he first started working with dichroic glass, a specialty glass consisting of multiple micro-layers of metal oxides that give the glass optical properties similar to a selective prism.

Using it first for suspended sculptures, he soon discovered that the projected light was more exciting. His first lightpaintings in 2000 and 2001 were large architectural installations. Space was a challenge in the atrium of the Women and Babies Hospital in Lancaster, Pa., but Knapp discovered that the limitation helped concentrate the effects of the light as it passed through the pieces of glass. He took great care to precisely position the glass pieces in order to truly capture his colorful visions.

Knapp worked with outside fabricators to provide the glass shapes in his early installations, but soon realized that he could do much more if he learned to cut, shape and polish the glass in his own studio. Through extensive research, perseverance and practice, Knapp taught himself how to handle every step of the production process. He also started experimenting with other coating and laminating methods. Now he works with manufacturers to create his own unique palette.

The lightpainting has developed into such an exacting art that Knapp is painstakingly selective even about the suppliers he chooses. Today, he uses four different suppliers just for the mounting brackets. Since the first attempts in the early 2000s, the lightpainting has come a long way.

"For my first piece, I had about 38 pieces of glass available to me and I used maybe 15 of those," he says. "Now I have hundreds-it's on an entirely different scale. I experiment with an extensive palette of glass coatings and a variety of equipment for cutting and shaping the glass on my own." It is here, at the intersection of this advanced technology and one artist's seemingly limitless imagination, that the lightpainting's niche may unfold in the art world.

"Shadow Musings" is part of Knapp's personal collection.

From Personal Inspiration to Public Perception

For the last decade or so, Knapp has been creating lightpaintings for private collections, corporate and public commissions, and museum shows. Key pieces include the "Seven Muses" commission for the Charles W. Eisemann Center in Richardson, Texas, and "First Symphony" in the Sursa Performance Hall at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Knapp's work is currently on exhibit at the Boise (Idaho) Art Museum and the Naples (Florida) Museum of Art as well.

People are certainly fascinated by the strange, ethereal properties of the never-before-seen lightpaintings. Nevertheless, Knapp has derived much of his success from the fact that he views the phenomenon of artistic inspiration differently than some of his contemporaries. "You don't sit around and wait for inspiration to politely tap you on the shoulder," he says. "I am motivated because I tell myself daily, 'This is what I do.' I have to. Sometimes you can leave a piece and come back to it the next day and look at it afresh, but other times you just have to push through because you know there's something else that can be done. There have been instances when I have stayed up all night for hours, exhausted, just because I knew that a particular piece required something extra that was still within my power at that moment."

Each piece is carefully crafted for its eventual display space (whether it is destined for a huge atrium or a private residence), and Knapp ceaselessly continues to experiment and research new methods to help him perfect the complex sensations and color interactions within a lightpainting. All these intensive efforts have clearly paid off: when people first glimpse Knapp's unconventional work, their immediate reactions run the gamut from surprise and bemusement to wonder and awe. Knapp describes this response as a generally positive one. "Seven Muses" and "First Symphony" garnered simultaneous gasps from hundreds of people when they were turned on for the first time.

But the artist wants people to progress past that original perception of the lightpainting. "There's that initial 'Oh, golly, gee, what IS that?' moment that people do have, because they've never seen anything quite like it. And that will happen, but I want them to move past that. A lot of art these days is pedantic or didactic, and it is trying to teach about some social issue or other. They're all saying the same things-I don't want to do that. I want people to have individual responses and unique experiences with my art. Everyone brings their own perspectives that they can project onto a piece. Maybe they'll find a place of meditation, or a place of reflection."

Arts and the Economy

In a failing economy, artists, galleries and museums are frequently the first to suffer. When people worry about paying for their groceries, the support of the arts tends to drop to the bottom of everyone's priority lists. Even as the U.S. continues to struggle through its worst recession in years, Knapp has been able to weather the storm with few major difficulties.

"I have been very fortunate in this economy," he admits. "Although some things did not happen that would have in other circumstances, I have had a lot of work in the past decade."

Not all artists have been so lucky. Knapp says that the key to survival is really just dedication to one's art. He believes that he has been successful because he continually hones his skill and puts in plenty of hard work. "In some ways, the bad economy was actually beneficial for the art industry," he says. "It weeded out a profusion of art that, really, wasn't all that good. When the economy isn't healthy, then you as an artist have to prove your worth. The cream rises."

Another necessary undertaking for any artist-especially in a difficult economy-involves effective marketing and promotion processes. Well-established artists never rely solely on their existing clientele base. "The most successful artists are the ones who practice careful marketing," explains Knapp. "I reach out to galleries and museums slowly, after a certain amount of deliberation. It's a selective process. I follow people in magazines or on the Internet and that's how I choose where I'd like to show."

Future Endeavors

It seems as though Stephen Knapp has earned a well-deserved break; after all, he has already invented an entirely new category of artistic expression. But the dynamic artist has no plans to stop now. "There are centuries of paintings to look back upon, but for my own work there is no precedent," he says. "There is plenty of exploring left to do!"

Knapp's advice for aspiring artists? "Find your own medium," he suggests. "Don't be afraid to experiment." Indeed, it is easy to see he has taken his own advice to heart. The stage is set; it will be a delight to see what Stephen Knapp has in store for the world.

For more information about Stephen Knapp's lightpaintings, visit www.lightpaintings.com. Current installations can be viewed on his Facebook page, Stephen Knapp Lightpaintings, as well.

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