A Light Knapp

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTO Satashi Yamamoto

Combining all the colours in the visible light spectrum in equal proportions will give you white light. But to American artist Stephen Knapp, it is the process of separating out the colours in white light that has given him the greatest reward in his long career as a visual artist. Inspired by the qualities of light, colour and space, Knapp’s “lightpaintings” sit at the intersection of painting, sculpture and architecture.

No stranger to Canada, Knapp has spent a large part of his life vacationing in Nova Scotia. His artistic career was partially triggered by another aspect of Canadiana–as a kid, he was first introduced to design by reading the back pages of The Star Weekly (published by The Toronto Star until 1975). Knapp gleefully remembers discovering modular furniture design, modern art and contemporary residential design in this once-popular weekly lifestyle magazine.

Before embarking on his lightpainting career, Knapp experimented with etched metal, ceramic and slate to construct murals that would use light as a catalyst to bring a greater perception of depth to his compositions. He eventually explored the use of coloured glass as a way to manipulate and capture light. The properties of glass never ceased to fascinate him; he developed a method of separating white light into pure colours with the aid of dichromatic glass pieces and 75-watt lightbulbs. Breaking down white light and creating large, variegated and illuminated surfaces of light, darkness and shadow is what he refers to as lightpainting. When combined with the use of stainless steel and its reflective properties, the separated bands of coloured light can be further controlled and guided across a given surface.

Another aspect to Knapp’s installations is his fascination with the edges of the coloured bands, as well as the subtle characteristics of shadows that contain traces of coloured light, a condition he ascribes to the underpainting of his lightpaintings. This underpainting gives his work greater dimension, one that is surprisingly complex.

For this year’s IIDEX/NeoCon show in Toronto, Knapp has created a 12′ x 24′ piece entitled Castled Void. The installation will include his signature multi-coloured aesthetic but it will also explore the idea of depth and shadow on a larger scale. With this piece, viewers will be able to experience the complexity of his lightpainting from a distance, and Knapp hopes to install a floating ceiling and two sidewalls to shield the installation from extraneous light sources.

Situated just outside of Boston in Worcester, Knapp’s studio practice started off small with just his wife and son at his side. Today, he continues to operate the studio with his wife and two full-time assistants who help grind and polish glass for his various installations. The growth of his artistic practice continues; he expects that his 5,000-square-foot studio will double in size next year. Knapp’s work can be found in private collections and galleries around the world. Recently, he installed a large piece on a cruise ship and will be working on a large multi-surface light installation in Naples, Florida later this fall. Clearly, his enduring popularity in cities across the globe is evidence of Knapp’s success in working with the ethereal qualities of light.