Born without a right forearm, Isaac Powell was at first reluctant to reflect his disability in his art. Slowly over time, the Eastern Kentucky University art professor began to "confront that fear" by painting and drawing hands, bodies and even his prosthetic, developing his own "creative vocabulary."
Now one of his works, a painting entitled "Questions of Symmetry," is part of the Focus Forward exhibition on display this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, in the Hall of Nations, features artwork from 16 artists in an Emerging Young Artists Program sponsored by the VSA, an international organization focused on arts, education and disability.
The VSA program recognizes outstanding artists with disabilities through a competitive annual juried arts competition. Focus Forward illustrates how the artists have responded to trends in the art world, forged new paths of artistic expression, achieved success and been inspired by performance and technology.
The exhibition is part of the 25/40 Celebration hosted by the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institution to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 40th anniversary of the founding of VSA.
Powell explores the emotions associated with his disability through his paintings of still-life plants and landscapes. He also uses his prosthetic as a design component. Though he has never actually worn the prosthetic, Powell uses the interaction of imagery and surface texture to transmit what he calls a "sense tension."
"Initially, when I started to make art, I wanted to shy away from painting or drawing any type of work that had reference to the fact that I had one hand," Powell said. "I didn't want to use that handicap as a creative crutch. So initially my work was about anything but bodies and hands. Slowly through time I decided I wanted to confront that fear by painting and drawing hands, bodies and even my prosthetic.
"Over time I developed my own creative vocabulary by changing the hands and prosthetics and bodies to other things such as flowers, cactus or ceramic vessels so that you equate the leaves on limbs of trees to hands which are on the limbs of the body. So leaves were analogous of hands in my work."
Powell grew up in Texas. He began college as a forestry major but found it to be too business-oriented and switched to art, though he credits his early forestry background with inspiring his nature-themed work.
"I'd always drawn, even as a child, but never really considered it a serious area of study," he said. "I was pushed by my parents to be a drawing major and found out I loved it.
"I also found that drawing encompasses all the other disciplines, and I wanted to be able to depict whatever I wanted to quickly on paper. So I decided to be a drawing major, and from there I moved on to painting. I find they are closely married together."
Powell earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Washington State University. He was an assistant professor at Northwestern State University in Louisiana for two years before joining the EKU faculty in 2009.
He began teaching drawing classes in graduate school and quickly discovered teaching was something he felt he could do for the rest of his life and still find exciting. Working as an art professor boosted his own creativity as well, because students "come in with new, fresh ideas and knowledge of technology that I'm not quite aware of yet. They're always one step ahead of me in that, so that for me is really exciting."
In creating his own art, Powell begins by creating a problem to solve, which he calls a visual equation.
"A work of art has to really catch the viewer's eye and sustain some type of interest," he said. "That's what makes a work of art interesting to me.
"I'll create something that in my opinion is not very attractive, and I'll set about to fix it until it looks nice and pleasing to me. It's very extemporaneous, it's very intuitive. Oftentimes I don't have any preconceived idea of what it's going to be."
Powell's work has been exhibited at the prestigious Armory Show in New York City. His painting titled "Seam" was featured in the 2010 VSA Revealing Culture exhibit at the International Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2005, Powell was awarded $20,000 for a piece titled "Growthplate," which was displayed at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, also at the Smithsonian Institution.