Stephen Knapp   Selected Works  |  Biography  |  Selected Press

J. Johnson Gallery Selected Press Information

Odyssey of Light
Wesley Grissom

For over four decades Stephen Knapp has proved himself an innovative force in the art world by devising enterprising techniques to express his lofty creative visions. Most recently his efforts have been directed at merging science with art to develop a dynamic new medium: Knapp has established himself as a lightpainter.

Please do not confuse him with Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light,” however. Knapp doesn’t use brushes or paint on canvas although he likens the continuous awe of interacting with his materials to “an artist discovering pigments for the first time.” He works in concert with a team who assist on technical aspects of this incredible new medium, but each of Knapp’s pieces is a truly unique work of fine art.

“With my lightpaintings I separate white light into pure color and 'paint' with light,” he explains. To do this he uses carefully shaped pieces of glass which act as prisms to refract and transmit vibrantly colored light across a wall.

The effect for both viewer and artist is visually and intellectually arresting. Knapp remarks that “working with light is a gift to [him], it’s an incredibly amazing medium to begin exploring.”

Knapp describes his creative evolution leading to lightpainting as a “self-taught odyssey.” Long considered a pioneer in the arts it is surprising that he didn’t exhibit artistic genius as a child growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts (where he now resides with his wife.) “I didn’t paint and wasn’t creative... My 7th grade art teacher told me to hang up my crayons,” he insists.


Through the Looking Glass

Knapp’s artistic ambitions finally emerged in the late 1960’s when he discovered photography. “I was snapping beautiful scenes in the woods to make a living, but what fascinated me most were the abstractions I was doing.”

In the 1970’s Polaroid invited Knapp to experiment with their innovative large format camera, giving the photographer an opportunity to dive into abstraction capturing close-ups of brilliantly colored scarves and paint chipped wood.

The gigantic view camera was just 2 weeks old when the artist, assisted by experts at Polaroid, produced his first 20 x 24 inch instant prints with the 600-pound prototype. Other early practitioners included Ansel Adams and Chuck Close.

The colossal size, tonal nuances, and signature streaked borders of the unique Polaroid prints went on to garner a cult following that lingers today. Although supply reserves are finite, for a significant sum the handful of these large format cameras in existence (now a slim 200 pounds) are available for rent today.

Expanding Vision

The first Polaroid sessions were not Knapp’s primary foray into large-scale photography—he had produced prints up to 11 feet long. In the mid-1980s Knapp pioneered a different type of photography—printing on non-traditional materials like aluminum, enamel, or wood to accommodate expanding photographic visions.

Knapp’s “photomurals” were commissioned for large public spaces like Rockefeller Center and his desire to challenge photographic conventions led him to the ancient pottery mecca of Shigaraki, Japan. There he worked with ceramic experts to transfer large film negatives to colossal ceramic panels before glazing and firing to create three unprecedented works of art for public commissions.

Knapp also developed a name for himself working extensively with media like art glass and steel creating contemporary furniture, small-scale sculpture, and large installations. He admits to an “endless curiosity about materials.”

Illuminated Vision

The color and shading that defined Knapp’s first 20 x 24 inch Polaroid series were dependant on light, an element which has moved from the periphery of his oeuvre to the cornerstone of his current artistic enterprise.

Knapp achieves intense luminous effects with a single light source thanks to his creation, selection, and placement of pieces of glass that reflect and transmit light energy. Each is diamond cut, tooled, and brilliantly polished to allow for safe handling.

“I don’t refer to my work as glass at. It’s light art—because glass is only the way to get me there. Light is really the true star.”



Like the artist, his lightpaintings have undergone a natural evolution. “My first works were on an architectural scale and I was still using fabricators. Then I bought equipment to shape glass in house so I could control it more.” Now he also creates more accessible panel pieces that hover in the 24 by 36 inch range.

Integrity of materials is important and each component receives an impressive amount of time and attention to ensure the level of workmanship Knapp demands. Research into all aspects of the lightpaintings—from glass coatings to the lights themselves- is constant and certain materials have been manufactured solely for the artist’s use.

Knapp works in a painterly manner, bringing each glass shape up to the wall with the light to evaluate angles and overlapping color effects. He decides where and how to orient the reflective mounting bracket. The underpainting (layering of light and pigments) is tedious; the multi-faceted artist is “like a painter who re-works his canvas.”

Because a lightpainting’s dazzling illuminations extend far beyond the glass itself it is easy to lose sight of where the pane is affixed. Knapp explains how “the stainless steel brackets ground the planes of light going back into space” as well as secure the compositions.


Knapp describes the initial reaction to his first lightpainting as was one of awe. “But then they asked how I would move it. What seems so obvious now took forever to figure out.”

He and his team photograph each piece and create a full-size template in the studio indicating the precise location and orientation of each bracketed piece of glass as well as the light. Although the artist is typically active in installations, if a wall is painted or a client decides to enjoy the lightpainting in a bedroom instead of an entryway it is not difficult to re-hang.

Knapp provides the template and the tools necessary to re-position the work in a fresh location and his self-contained panel pieces are even easier to install.

“People ask me—‘If I buy this could I change it?’ Of course, but they wouldn’t have a Stephen Knapp lightpainting; they’d simply have very expensive pieces of glass. You wouldn’t buy a Pollock and drip paint on top!” he exclaims.

The Exhibition

Viewing Knapp’s lightpaintings in person is a unique and fascinating sensory experience a bit like being enveloped by a rainbow. “Each piece has a presence that far exceeds its physical dimensions,” he asserts.

Knapp’s brilliant work can be found in international airports, Royal Caribbean cruise ships, private residences, medical buildings and corporate collections like Citibank and IBM. He has exhibited at museums and galleries nationwide and international art fairs in New York, Miami, Palm Beach, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

J. Johnson Gallery affords North Florida an opportunity to appreciate Stephen Knapp’s work firsthand from April 16 through June 11. Gallery director Bruce Dempsey divided the Jacksonville Beach space, showcasing the paintings both vibrantly illuminated in a darkened gallery as well as exposed to ambient lighting.

“Life is complicated and changes. My art changes gradually during the day. It doesn’t lose its brilliance, it’s just different.” The duality of the J. Johnson Gallery exhibition presents Knapp’s organic geometric compositions as they would evolve
naturally in most placements, whether commercial or residential.

Light is integral to our lives but we often don’t give it much thought. A prism splits light into seven color frequencies and some believe this energy is represented by the seven chakras. Light uplifts and energizes physically and spiritually.

Knapp’s radiant lightpaintings are an optical and sensory treat. But Knapp also considers them “ironic and contradictory—here I am combining technically engineered pieces of glass, electricity, science and engineering. Yet I am painting.”

Being a lightpainter invigorates Stephen Knapp. “I’m at an age where a lot of my friends are retiring, but I want to work. Hell, I like to work. This is what I’m passionate about. The light art is constantly unfolding and challenging- and to be the only one in the world to do this, why would I want to do something else?”

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