Knoxville sculptor and HART alumnus John Powers comes from a family of tinkerers in rural Tennessee. He grew up working on cars and farm equipment, and his stunning kinetic sculptural installation Ialu (2011), on view through September 10 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, demonstrates his mechanical prowess. Steel reeds connect to wooden supports and are powered by an electric motor to sway back and forth like a field of tall grass—a reminder that in ancient Egypt the afterlife was described as a field of reeds. The rhythmic movement is set against a projection of mirrored clouds, and the piece examines humanity’s sometimes fraught relationship with nature. With its loud creaking machinery, Ialu suggests this ideal of eternal peace found in nature has fallen under the control of humanity.
Dottie Habel, director of UT’s School of Art, describes Powers’ work as “remarkable for its scale, its ambition, its manufacture, and its haunting content.”
Powers, associate professor of sculpture at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville, is in the current exhibit entitled State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, a broad survey of art from across the United States. The project, organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, provides a vivid snapshot of contemporary work from diverse studios and creative communities, featuring artists from rural communities, small towns, and urban centers. The Frist’s Ingram Gallery presents a selection of works that were in the original exhibition, grouped thematically to demonstrate connections between artists and ideas across the country.
The Frist is offering a three-day professional development institute that will highlight two of the summer exhibitions currently on view. Educators will explore American contemporary art with Powers on Thursday, June 29, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Conversations in the galleries and hands-on activities in the Frist studios will complement the insights provided by Powers and other artists.
Powers, who began teaching sculpture at the University of Tennessee in 2013, was a fine arts major at Vanderbilt and recipient of the prestigious Margaret Stonewall Wooldridge Hamblet Award in 2001. A year and a half after graduation, Powers returned to campus to mount a solo exhibition of the work he completed during the award year. He earned his MFA in sculpture, with distinction, in 2008 from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia.
His work has been featured in the New York Times, World Sculpture News, Sculpture Magazine, Art Forum, The Huffington Post, Art in America, and the Boston Globe, and on CBS News Sunday Morning. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship (2016), the Virginia A. Groot Foundation Award (2013), and a Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant, as well as a Southeastern College Art Conference Individual Artist Fellowship and an Alabama State Council on the Arts Fellowship.
His sculptural work has been exhibited nationally, including Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, MIT Museum, Mariana Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Huntsville Museum of Art, Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art, Wiregrass Museum of Art, Alexander Brest Museum, Masur Museum, Gadsden Museum of Art, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, Brenda Taylor Gallery, Georgia Museum of Art, Vero Beach Museum of Art, and Cue Art Foundation. He had a solo exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art (2016), and his videos and animations have been screened internationally.
*John Douglas Powers (b. 1978). Ialu, 2011. Wood, steel, plastic, electric motor, and video projection, 57 x 80 x 108 inches. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: courtesy of the artist