Stephen Knapp in his studio
– photo by Jonathan Knapp
– all others by Stephen Knapp
"Standing in front of one of artist Stephen Knapp's lightpaintings is a little like falling in love with a movie star. The illusion is no less compelling just because you know it is an illusion."
How awesome is a rainbow? The natural spectrum is amazingly pretty, but it is not about being "pretty." Rainbows are mythical, magical and aesthetically awe-inspiring. What we see as a scientifically explained refraction and reflection of light actually resonates throughout our being and evokes a mystical experience. Come on now, folks, smile, you know what I'm talking about. Human beings, like most life forms, are almost magnetically attracted to the light, the force that nourishes and heals our biological, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Artists throughout history have aspired to create works that are transcendental, that transport us, like the rainbow, to that inner place of insight, wholeness and at-one-ment.
Aldous Huxley, in his book "Heaven and Hell", quoted a vividly described moment of personal illumination. "'I was sitting on the seashore…. Unconsciously to myself, I looked at a film of sand I had picked up in my hand, when I suddenly saw the exquisite beauty of every little grain of it; instead of being dull, I saw that each particle was made up on a perfect geometrical pattern, with sharp angles, from each of which a brilliant shaft of light was reflected, while each tiny crystal shone like a rainbow…. The rays crossed and recrossed, making exquisite patterns of such beauty that they left me breathless.'"
Artist Stephen Knapp has long been experimenting with light. "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 mediums 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. 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. At once both physical objects and illusions, they remind us that dreams, hopes and aspirations are the center of art's ability to touch the human spirit."
Knapp has been making art that interacts with and is transformed by light for over thirty years. Research and experimentation with materials and their interactions with light have formed the thread that runs through all his aesthetic and technical developments.
Stephen Knapp's art career, beginning with photography, evolved processes of creating new images and the means to manifest them. Photos became so large that they outgrew available photographic paper. He found that etching photos on outsized metal panels was viable, and could be reflective and responsive to changing light conditions. Huge glazed ceramic murals that necessitated trips to Japan to access the ceramic expertise and enormous kilns found only there, followed. Knapp collaborated with Japan's highly trained artisans to develop new glaze formulations and control of surface. He later created ten eighteen-foot long panels of carved slate and mosaic tile at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland. He etched metal murals and walls ("the gradations are so rich, and the reflectivity of the metals is mutable and wonderful, depending upon the angle of the light"). Kiln-formed glass walls, cast glass and steel sculpture and furniture followed, leading up to the lightpaintings.
"I've been developing ideas and techniques for these lightpaintings over the last decade, but the work has only been shown publicly for the last five years. It is growing non-stop."
Knapp has already been awarded numerous public and private commissions for his lightpainting installations and for smaller residential panels. He has an upcoming solo show at the South Dakota Art Museum. Eckert Fine Art in Naples, Florida ("The Art of Color and Light"), the Kraft Lieberman Gallery in Chicago (both galleries where he is represented), Skot Foreman Fine Art in Atlanta and the Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Michigan also gave Knapp solo exhibitions. The Flint Institute of Arts built a wall to Knapp's specifications for his permanent installation. New lightpainting installations can be seen at the Eisemann Center in Richardson, Texas, the Sursa Performance Hall at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana (installation in mid-August) and Florida's Tampa City Hall. New York, Toronto, Spain, Germany, Taiwan and Japan have also hosted Knapp's art.
A museum curator who recently visited the studio was awe-struck by this supreme colorist's light, glass and steel work. She gasped in amazement, "Oh my heavens, it's a painting! It is so organic!"
All the glass used in the lightpaintings is "safety glass." Each piece has up to twenty-four microscopically thin layers of lightfast metallic coating. The color that is reflected or projected on the white wall or panel is affected by the angle of the glass to the light source (often just one halogen light). Hues are also determined by the order of metallic layers. Plates of glass are laminated in pairs with the coating sandwiched in the middle for protection.
Knapp designs the shapes to be cut from the laminated pieces with diamond band saws and then polished with diamond grits. Glass shapes reflect in two directions. This provides potential for new color mixtures.
Given the complexity of elements, the variables are mind-boggling. Color changes determined by the angle of glass to light, spatial relationships and angles of shapes to each other one and to the edges of the panel, the shadows cast by the mounting brackets and screws and lines cast by the edges of the glass all contribute to the final image. If even one piece is moved, the whole painting changes. If the plan is not carefully resolved, the colors muddy and the overall piece loses clarity and energy.
Any time a design or production problem arises, Knapp must research and develop a new solution. Everything is custom made, including the lights (by manufacturers from all over the world), the highly polished steel brackets and screws that hold the glass pieces, as well as all means for securely shipping the materials. Effective systems to operate the "business" of art, ultimately allow the artist to be truly creative.
Dealers have asked Knapp, "Where did you come from? Why don't we know you?" The answer is that Stephen Knapp has been working and producing stunning art for the last thirty years, but most of his public pieces have been large and architecturally based. In these cases, name recognition is shared with the architects, developers and corporations or major community facilities. This artist "…welcomes the opportunity to work on a large scale in a public realm. It gives me the opportunity to show work to people who might not otherwise be involved with art, to challenge and to engage them. Perception- how we see everything- is colored by history, society, culture and memory. Lightpaintings add to the dialogue."
The Charles W. Eisemann Center for Performing Arts is the "heart of the community" in Richardson, Texas, near Dallas. It hosts local events and recitals, as well as professional opera, ballet, symphony, experimental and traditional theatre. Knapp's Seven Muses installation in the grand lobby has seven lightpaintings literally dancing across one wall to inspire visitors. During daylight, the work's colors appear pale, they hint at "promise." At night, when the ambient light is minimal, the work's bright, intense colors suggest "fulfillment." On a dark day, the colors jump out with more life; the inherent kinetics of the piece act as a mirror to possibilities and inspiration.
"I shape colors; shade and shroud colors, or heighten them. The way the shadows work on the wall and the way the darkness works, the more the colors blend. I have spent two years developing ways to make gradations of grays. Light has an eminence; every time you see white you see color."
Some of the colors evoke sounds. Wavelengths seem to envelop you. There is a three-dimensional cadence to the colors. Knapp loves music and uses it to enrich his creative process. His studio is always bathed in arias, orchestral grandeur or jazz. He sees the Seven Muses as a concerto or symphony.
Pointing to the layout on a monitor, he posits, "This could be the conductor here, with these two as possible dancers, etc. But I'm not declaring my intention; it's more important that each person sees the work and responds to it. I want people to see and feel the energy that is emanating from the center of it. I want people to see the subtleties, not just the bright colors that are associated with my work. A lot of time is dedicated to making this about discovering extraordinary possibilities with light. Lightpainting is new; we do not yet have the critical vocabulary for discussing it."
Jeffrey Kraft, of the Kraft Lieberman Gallery, observes, "When people want to know what they are looking at when viewing one of Stephen Knapp's lightpaintings, I tell them to think of someone seeing Picasso's first Cubist painting. Would they have known that this was the first glimpse at true Cubism, and the future of modern art? No one could have imagined at that time the impact that Picasso's art would have on the world." Kraft continues, "Like anything new, some people dismiss innovation as just different and strange while others see it as a springboard into the future. Although we don't yet know the impact that Stephen Knapp's lightpaintings will have, this is a beginning, a new art form."
Looking at the reflections and projections of color, I am reminded of the layers of pastel color in Edgar Degas' ballerina drawings. Stephen Knapp similarly builds with layers of ephemeral light. His mounting hues and tonalities become layers of time, memory and experience. Illusion and reality are all mixed up. When you approach and really "get into" the painting, you can't tell where you are. It's like being in a multi-dimensional maze. Light beams shoot out in different directions; differentiated colors create complex transparent overlays. In some cases, strong intense colors are objectified, while the subtle ones become an atmosphere, become an infusion and a suffusion of color. There is a palpable sense of vibration and the vibrations talk to my pulse, to my internal experience and to my external response. I get flickers of perceptions, flickers of what is there and what is not fully there. Stephen suggests that "it is really cool to walk up to the work sideways, to see all the shapes of the glass, see it obliquely, projecting from the wall. Up close, you can see all the newly formed colors in their subtlety, some with hard edges, some with dissolving edges."
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Stephen Knapp maintains his impressive studio there and continues to live in Worcester with his family. His wife oversees two assistants in the business and production aspects of the operation.
A fine and lucid writer, Knapp's book, "The Art of Glass," features the top architectural glass artists in the world. He is frequently called upon to be a guest lecturer. His (art) work has appeared in many international publications, including Art & Antiques, Architectural Record, ARTnews, Ceramics Monthly, Honoho Geijutsu, Identity, Interior Design, Interiors, Nikkei Architecture, Progressive Architecture and The New York Times. His work is installed in numerous public, private and corporate collections including Sprint, United Airlines and the Brunswick Corporation.
While discussing this new medium of lightpainting and its exciting possibilities, Knapp said, "For centuries, artists have sought to capture light with pigment. Actual light, and creating with it, is so different that I think it's where we're going to be going as artists. We will always have painting here; this is just painting a bit differently. It's all about that elusive something that makes us want to create—that drive to leave a little bit of ourselves to solve some visual problems. There's a whole myriad of reasons why we create and put something on the wall like this—this is just another way to do it, and capture it and share it with others."
Through ceaseless inquiry, experiment, dogged work and sensitivity, the artist Stephen Knapp is bringing us to the future and back again to claim our birthright of a true, clear vision of the world and ourselves.
You can see and read more about Stephen Knapp and his work at his website, www.lightpaintings.com.
Adrienne Garnett is an artist, writer and art educator in the New York area.