art by Stephen Rolfe Powell
This piece is part of Stephen Rolfe Powell’s “Whacko” series. | Photo by Sara Havens

Earlier this year, Kentucky lost one of its most renowned glass artists when Stephen Rolfe Powell died on March 16 at the age of 67. Although enduring various injuries and overcoming them, Powell continued to create one-of-a-kind vibrant glass sculptures and also teach his craft at his alma mater, Centre College in Danville, Ky.

In fact, Powell was planning for his next exhibit during the months leading up to his death, and he was thrilled the venue was going to be the serene and sprawling backdrop of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky. Powell visited the distillery a few times — and even created a commissioned piece a few years before — jotting down notes about which pieces he’d like to include and where.

It was through those early snippets of thought that the Maker’s team, along with Powell’s longtime assistant as well as his widow, pieced together the new exhibit, simply called “Stephen Rolfe Powell,” which opens Friday, Aug. 2, as part of the distillery’s daily tours.

Stephen Rolfe Powell
Stephen Rolfe Powell | Courtesy

The show features 43 pieces that span the artist’s decades-long career, including many from his private collection.

“I’ve always admired Stephen’s unique vision, his attention to detail and total dedication to his craft,” said Maker’s Mark Chief Distillery Officer Rob Samuels in a news release. “Because we share those values with him, Stephen felt the distillery would be a perfect setting for this exhibition, and we’re thrilled to host it.”

Insider took a trip to the distillery to witness the exhibit for ourselves, and what is most exciting is the interconnectedness between the art exhibit and distillery. Of course there are pieces on display in true gallery fashion — colorful works of art mounted on a white pedestal with a spotlight beamed in its direction.

But there also are parts of the show that incorporate bourbon and its delicate processes, proving that bourbon, like art, requires skill, passion and time to make that remarkable end product. The highlight of the show, for us, were the pieces from Powell’s “Whacko” series that were intricately placed inside one of Maker’s oldest rick houses — on display alongside the hundreds of aging barrels.

Our knowledgeable tour guide, Roy Lee Wigginton, explained that while it was tough to construct an art exhibit among a working rick house, the biggest challenge was finding explosion-proof lighting — something the average art gallery would never have to consider.

The bright hues of the bulbous “Whacko” series, which each feature three points of contact with the surface, played perfectly with the barrels’ aged browns and grays. There are thousands of strange things you might come across in a rick house — from spiders to a plumb bob — but a breathtaking glass sculpture from an internationally renowned artist typically isn’t one of them.

And that’s what makes this exhibit so thrilling to us — the juxtaposition of art and science, of old and new, of liquid and glass.

Another highlight is found inside the Maker’s underground bat cave, as we like to call it, where private barrel selections take place and also where the Maker’s 46 barrels are stored. A large display of 10 of Powell’s glass plates were intricately arranged and lit up, making the colors pop inside the otherwise dark and cool space.

art by Stephen Rolfe Powell
This Stephen Rolfe Powell arrangement is located in the Maker’s 46 cave. | Photo by Sara Havens

In 2017, Maker’s hosted a glass exhibit by the esteemed Dale Chihuly, and this new exhibit dedicated to Stephen Rolfe Powell continues their inspiring commitment to celebrating art and tradition.

And in addition to Powell’s pieces, work from some of his students from around the world will be on display as well, and these pieces will be auctioned off to collectors at the close of the show, with proceeds going to the Stephen Rolfe Powell Memorial Fund at Centre to help art students continue their education.

The exhibit runs from Friday, Aug. 2, through Nov. 30, and is included in the price of regular tour admission — $14 for adults, $5 for children, $10 for veterans and free for active military. The distillery also will host several special dinners in conjunction with the exhibit, so stay tuned to the Events page on the website.

Here’s a look at more images from our trip:

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."