IT’S AN ARTIST’S DREAM to be recognized by experts and curators and to have your work shown by an internationally-known museum.
Isaac Powell, a 26-year-old fine arts student at Washington State University, realized that dream last fall when his painting won a spot in a traveling exhibit that opened at the Smithsonian Institution.
His piece, Growthplate, took grand prize in the nonprofit VSA arts juried exhibit of young artists with disabilities. It also brought him a $20,000 award, which he says has already been funneled back into his art.
Lean, hip in black-rimmed glasses, and relaxed, he settles into his chair in his 12-by-12 studio in WSU’s Fine Arts Building. The windows along the north wall look out over Martin Stadium. They offer quite a view, especially on game days, says Powell.
On one wall hang two of his latest pieces, paintings on birch plywood, a medium he says gives him more of a feeling of permanence than canvas.
When starting on a piece, Powell creates a situation for himself and then sets about reducing it. He begins by filling the wood plane with multiple lines and forms with graphite and ink, and then painting over them with a neutral-colored acrylic, sanding it down, tweaking and tuning, finding and isolating forms, until just a few details remain. The result is a less complicated surface, but with a sense of something lurking just underneath. “I like to start out pretty chaotic and colorful. It’s like I’m setting myself up with a problem, an equation that I need to solve,” he says. “What you see in the end is the solution.”
The solution often involves plants and flowers in various states of definition, and in the case of Growthplate, images that make him think of the differences between his right arm, which was damaged prenatally, and his left. “The flowers are kind of analogous of bodies and figures,” he says. “I have fully rendered flowers, and then images that are less rendered.”
Powell has no problem painting over works that aren’t going well, nor does he have an issue with selling his finished projects. “It’s not hard at all to let them go,” he says. “Any more work on them would be taking away from another painting. And it’s a nice feeling when people want your work.”
The M.F.A. student started his college career at Stephen F. Austin State University as a forestry major, but then realized he was more into the beauty of forests than the art of managing them. So he signed up for drawing class. The effort took him through an M.A. degree in art at SFA State, before he and his wife, Valerie, also an artist, decided it was time to try living somewhere new.
At WSU they found a fine arts program that suited them both. Her studio is just two doors down from his. The most valuable part of coming to a new school is getting to work with a new group of artists and professors and have their feedback and influence.
Powell put together his VSA contest entry just as he was leaving Texas for Pullman. With so many other things to manage, he forgot that he entered. But when he saw the Washington, D.C., phone number on his cell phone this fall, it came rushing back. “I knew it was good news,” he says.
He’s grateful for the recognition and happy with the money, but most important, “It’s great just being able to put the Smithsonian on your resume.”