The story of area artist Stephen Knapp’s revolutionary lightpaintings (distinct from photographic light painting), is a tale about risk, exploration and the artist’s long journey.
Knapp is known locally for the eight glass doors at the Worcester Public Library, added during the building’s refurbishing in the early 1990s, and worldwide for some of the world’s largest glass-glazed ceramic murals and for his kaleidoscopic “lightpaintings,” that are not paintings at all, but spectral flourishes of refracted light illuminated remarkably by a single light source.
Knapp’s work includes permanent exhibits in Cincinnati, Ohio and Japan, and a temporary exhibit currently on display at The Alexandria Museum of Art in Alexandria, La., where it will remain through November, before moving to Lakeland, Fla.
Knapp never set out to be a lightpainter. That discovery occurred unwittingly when he picked up a camera in college.
“At Hamilton [College, in Clinton, NY],” Knapp says, “I picked up a camera and said, ‘Oh, wow!’ I never knew that I could do something creative until I picked up a camera for the first time, and it absolutely blew me away.”
Knapp says that his experiences at the liberal arts college were “way way important” in precipitating his discovery.
“I tell most young people I talk to that want to make a living in the arts to get a good liberal arts degree first, because you learn to think differently, if you take advantage of it. And that ability to look at things differently, to come at it from different perspectives, is why I am where I am today.”
“The people that end up leading giant companies, and most endeavors really, tend to be people who can think laterally and who have a good grasp of a lot of different areas.”
He also credits the zeitgeist of the time period.
“I was drinking the Kool Aid of the ‘60s, which said you could do anything you wanted,” he says, “and by the time I realized how difficult it was to lead a creative life I was just too stubborn to stop.”
And the rest, as they say…took decades of tireless exploration and risk-taking.
The initial gambit to pursue art out of college, though, didn’t cause Knapp a moment of doubt.
“That was easy. I worked for a large corporation for a couple years and it taught me that I never wanted to do that again.”
Though Knapp’s early artistic forays were in photography, his first lark was in writing. “I dragged my young bride screaming off to Nova Scotia shortly after we got married to write the great American novel,” he says. “And we were up there for about 10 months and I’ve got three unpublished novels.”
The manuscripts remain in Knapp’s attic today. Despite his failure to hit pay dirt, he sees the jaunt as meaningful, just the same. “It was really just an incredible break from that tradition of going to high school, going to college, getting a job,” he says. “There’s something about those 10 months, [it] was a magical thing to do and in the ‘60s we just kind of expected we’d do things like that. It was the fall of ’71 when I last worked for somebody else.”
When he returned to the States, Knapp started small, selling photographic prints in increasing sizes and prices. Enjoying “working in scale,” he was drawn to larger pieces and eventually to installations, which led to edged metal walls.
“I did what was probably, in 1984, the largest photo-edged metal wall in the country, in Cincinnati, a 14-foot by 72-foot installation,” he says. “And that same year or the next year, I did what was, I think, one of the largest glass glazed-ceramic murals in the world, in Japan.”
These works were risky for the young artist, as he had no training in the medium. In fact, no one did, because the medium didn’t exist. “But I’m endlessly curious,” he says. It is said that curiosity killed the cat, and it must have struck fear in Knapp’s heart, too, as untested media, especially on a large scale, meant working in the unknown, for great periods of time, and limited remuneration. Knapp says that these circumstances played to his advantage, however, as he saw himself as “willing to take out huge chunks of time and invest in myself and invest in learning.”
Though professional commissions carry guarantees that minimize some elements of artistic risk associated with the independent artist, Knapp says that a lot of doubt remains. “You’ve just got to be willing to convince them and yourself that you can do the work, he says. “And often the amount of pay you get early on to do something that big is miniscule compared to the time involved.”
The risks, he says, paid off in other ways. “It was the ability to get some incredibly big things done that gave me the chance to move on and build a name,” he says.
Knapp’s arrival at his lightpaintings came about in the early 1990s, after he had completed work on the Worcester Public Library glass doors. He says that someone who saw his edged-metal and glass-metal walls, said, “‘We’d like you to do this large glass project.’” Knapp was surprised, because he hadn’t really worked in glass – at least not in the way they intended. So, he asked, “‘Why me?’” and they said, “’We like the way you think, the way you solve problems, and how you create things,” hearkening back to his liberal arts training.
“So, I started working in kiln-formed glass,” he says. And in late 1993 Chicago’s worldrenowned Merchandise Mart (the world’s largest commercial building and wholesale design center) asked Knapp to create an exhibit to go along with a talk on architectural art glass. “NeoCon is the biggest show in the world for architectural designers. And I was told that, if you do that, do it properly.”
The Mart offered Knapp a 5,000-square-foot showroom for a “huge exhibit that stayed up for a full year in The Mart.”
“I filled it with glass and steel sculpture and architectural walls, like the Worcester Public Library [doors].”
Initially fearing that he couldn’t fill the exhibit with just his own work, Knapp started looking at different types of materials and found acrylic glass, which, he says, “is the basis of lightpaintings.”
“We ended up doing the whole exhibit with glass and steel sculpture and furniture and art glass walls and really cool different things,” he says, “and I did a tiny dichroic piece in the corner.”
Since then, Knapp has created lightpaintings for nearly 40 private commissions throughout the United States, including The Allmerica Building on Lincoln Street, in Worcester, and has displayed his works in innumerable group and solo exhibits throughout the world.
“People tell me all the time that it takes a lot of guts to go through life doing this for a living. And I tell people that I was always more afraid of not doing it,” he says.
“Somebody told me years ago that I would be very wealthy if I stuck with something and did it over and over again, but I also think I would’ve been brain dead if I had done that.”
But since writing about art is like dancing about architecture (as they say!), drop this and visit http://www.stephenknapp.com to see the artist’s work.