Fine art at Maker's

Spirit of the Maker
Spirit of the Maker

Story by Shannon Eblen (June 2014)

The signature bottles aren’t the only glass on display these days at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Ky. In March, Maker’s Mark unveiled a large-scale installation, The Spirit of the Maker, by Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, in the ceiling of the barrel room.  In work for over a year, it is comprised of more than 1,300 individual glass sculptures and required a special room to be built above the barrel room that is air-pressurized to keep the pieces clean and dust-free.

The Chihuly piece was commissioned in honor of the distillery’s upcoming expansion and in celebration of the 60 year anniversary of its founding. With Maker’s Mark’s foray into fine art, it only made sense to reach out to Kentucky glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell about another glass commission.

I’ve been a long-time fan of his work,” said Rob Samuels, the distillery’s Chief Operating Officer.  “We kept our fingers crossed that he would be open to the idea.”

At first Powell was reluctant, accustomed to creating pieces from abstract ideas and bright colors, but was won over by the idea of abstracting a physical object — the Maker’s Mark bottle. The bottle, along with its red wax seal, was designed by Samuels’ grandmother.  Samuels emphasized that hand-made quality has always been an important part of the brand.

“We hand-cut every label and hand seal every bottle to mark each and every bottle as unique and special from the next,” Samuels said.  Including fine art in the distillery seemed “like a natural fit for the brand”.

Samuels and his father, former Maker’s Mark President Bill Samuels, went to Powell’s studio in Danville, Ky to watch him work and discuss ideas for the piece.

“I did a ‘Screamer’ drawing with the Maker’s Mark logo,” said Powell, referring to the name of one of his sculpture series, “and they seemed to like the idea.”

Working with a range of brown hues and square murini — slices of squared glass, a departure from his usual round murini — Powell formed an asymmetrical sculpture inspired by the Maker’s Mark bottle, but shaped like a “Screamer”, the bulbous form topped with a red flourish to mimic the red wax seal.

“I never use brown”, said Powell, “Starting with the brown and pulling color out of the brown was interesting.  It brought me into a different range of color.”

Powell added that another fun part of thinking about the bourbon for the piece was “getting to drink a lot of bourbon”.

To capture the specific lettering of the label, Powell’s team created a rondelle by layering black glass over opaque yellow glass and spinning the combination into a flat circle.  From there they cut the shape of the letters from vinyl resist sheets and sandblasted away the excess black glass, creating the glass label in a cameo-like effect, then fusing it to the molten glass during the blowing process.

Getting the label right was important to Powell. “I wanted to start with something fairly accurate and then distort it as we went on.” he said.

Powell said he and his team of five made between six and eight pieces in an effort to get to the one perfect piece.  One of the favorite tries met an unlucky end in the glory hole, a reheating furnace, while still in progress on the long metal pipe used in glass blowing.

“We were heating it in the glory hole and the pipe broke and fell into the glory hole and melted to nothing” said Powell.

The chosen sculpture was installed in the gift shop of the distillery on June 12th, framed by a white backdrop.  It greets visitors as they exit the barrel room into the gift shop to dip their own bottle.

Samuels said reaction to the piece has been positive.

“One customer simply said it is mind blowing.” he said.