Shining a Light on Stephen Knapp
This is the season of glass in Dallas. With Dale Chihuly’s installation at the Dallas Arboretum serving as a catalyst, 12 galleries are featuring the work of both local and nationally known glass artists, many challenging the traditional notions of what it means to work in this versatile medium.
One such artist is Massachusetts-based Stephen Knapp, who uses light and glass to create his lightpaintings. As part of this Master Glass 2012 program, his piece “False Prophet” is currently on view at Conduit Gallery. In addition to Conduit, Knapp had eight pieces in last month’s Art Shanghai. He will also be included in next winter’s Art Palm Beach.
A photographer by training, Knapp has had a lifelong interest in light. In honing his skills, he has moved progressively from photography to working in ceramic and mosaics. He then shifted to architectural art glass to kiln-formed and cast glass before finally arriving at his lightpaintings.
A+C: This is a very unique process. How did you get started with it?
STEPHEN KNAPP: I have been fascinated with light all my life, both for what it can do and for the effect it has on us. In all my prior media I’ve used light in ways that are not always apparent. When I found a way to uniquely express myself in light, I embraced it fully.
I looked at all sorts of glass before finding acrylic glass. In the 1990s, I did a few pieces with it. One day, I put a light on it. The first lightpainting was 17’ x 60’. At first I projected the light through the glass from a distance onto the wall. After that I attached the glass and light source directly to the wall, skimming the light and color along the wall.
I didn’t show my work until I felt I was ready to do so and that it was good enough.
A+C: How has the work evolved?
STEPHEN KNAPP: I have been developing a palette of grays and using textures. With “False Prophet,” this combination, along with their placement, came together to make something magical.
This is a labor intensive and expensive process. We cut the glass, laminate it, then cut and shape it again. We use laminated safety glass, which makes it difficult to cut and polish so we use diamond cutters. Each shape will reflect in two directions, allowing the colors to mix. I will look at how the glass lays on the wall and then put a bracket in it. I then mount each piece of glass to the brackets, as different shadows give the illusion of depth on walls. It becomes a very physical process of manipulating the light. I will then shape and manipulate as I work my way down the wall.
A+C: How do you create colors?
STEPHEN KNAPP: I wanted to bring color out as I could. I use diachronic glass that has 18-24 layers of metallic coating on it. This breaks light down to waves that can complement it. It doesn’t absorb energy so all the light is refracted. We pick up extraordinary flares with the glass. We see little pieces of light come off it as both transmitted and reflective color. With my lightpaintings I separate white light into pure color and ‘paint’ with light. Each piece has a presence that far exceeds its physical dimensions. I use 50 or 75-watt light bulbs to illuminate the work, which also makes it eco-friendly.
A+C: Do you have a pre-conceived vision of how these pieces will look?
STEPHEN KNAPP: Yes. Chance is not really involved with these. Think of the action painters. I know the grays and mid-tones and I know the textures. I have rows and rows of beautifully shaped and polished glass prepared as I begin each work. “False Prophet” has 18 pieces.
A+C: Does your work need to be seen in a darkened room?
If I had my way, I would only show in museums from 3–9 p.m. However, the work will change all day along with ambient light. Watching these things changing throughout the day is fascinating.
A+C: What are some of your inspirations?
STEPHEN KNAPP: I love being outside. I love walking in fields and meadows. Light has always been a part of what I do. My love of light has me working in the dark all day, which is ironic. In my new studio, I will be able to work in the dark but will still be able to see outdoor light during the day.
I come from a musical family so some days I work listening to opera, some days to jazz, and other days to Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. Music takes you places, and the creative process takes you somewhere else. That is lost in much of contemporary art.
A+C: What do you see as the future of lightpainting and your role in it?
STEPHEN KNAPP: This is a unique medium in the art world. I feel a responsibility not to screw it up. Light itself is the future because we can control it any way we want. Technology will let us do this. It has been an amazing process of learning. Every time I do a piece, I learn something new. I try to create places for people to go. I want people to lose themselves in the work.
— NANCY COHEN ISRAEL
Stephen Knapp at Conduit Gallery, May 12–June 16, 2012.