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Filmmaker Steve Powell talks about his plans for films about artists

Telling Stories
Filmmaker Steve Powell talks about his plans for films about artists

Steve Powell, a filmmaker who doesn’t think of himself as particularly knowledgeable about art—“I like what I like,” he says—is making a film—series of short films, really—about local art and artists.

Fotini Galanes

And incidentally, doesn’t think of what he does as art. Partly, it seems, because, he says, he doesn’t really know what art is. But confesses to an abiding interest in finding out. Which is some of the reason he’s making the series, entitled ärt Pozorovatel (from the Czech meaning, ärt Observer). “I’m trying to educate myself,” he says.

He’s currently finishing up the first film in the series, about artist Fotini Galanes, who makes feathery pencil drawings of delicate abstract forms of exquisite beauty.

“When I first saw her work,” he said, “I was a little overwhelmed. Shocked at how beautiful it was. So clean, tight, precise. Completely abstract, and yet it has movement, flow, direction. I admire the aesthetic, but equally the skill required to produce it. Extraordinary skill. Her art says something to me deep down, satisfies some inner need. I don’t have words to express it. Which I suppose is another part of why I’m making the film.”

A preliminary version of the film shows the artist at work making her drawings—at a table at the Aroma coffeehouse at Elmwood and Bidwell—and includes interviews about the artist and her work with aficionados the likes of Ted Pietrzak, former executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and Ed Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls.

“I want these films to be conversations,” Powell says. “About the art itself, but equally the genesis of it. Where it comes from. From life events, or emotional feelings, or just flat out inspiration. These are old questions, but we’re still digging at them.”

He said in college he studied some art history, and that got him interested in the subject of art, but mostly he studied philosophy—read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, that crew—which got him started asking questions. “So I’m interested in the philosophical conversation,” he said.

In his regular job—or more accurately jobs, plural—Powell works as an independent field producer, which means he shoots film or video footage—usually while interviewing the subject of the filming—for a wide variety of client news and/or entertainment organizations. To list a few, CBS, ABC, CBC, PBS, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Court TV, and Animal Planet. He has also worked as a producer for the 2010 Winter Olympics and the United States Olympic Committee. And was the editor and story editor on an award-winning feature-length documentary film entitled The Forgotten City.

“But the work for the networks,” he said, “sometimes you feel like a short-order cook. You have to give the customer what he wants. They tell you, ‘Go make me one of those, and I want this and this and this with it.’ You don’t put mustard on ice cream. But they say, ‘No, no, we’ve got to have some mustard on the ice cream.’ So it’s not the way I would do it. Which is why I’m making the art and artist films. Because I want to do something the way I want to do it. It’s an exercise for me in expressing myself. What I feel. The way I feel.”

“But what I really do,” Powell said, “both in the commercial work and this work too, is just tell stories. I don’t care if I do it with a chisel or a film camera.”

He has written a book—of local but also more widespread renown—called Rushing the Growler, the story of the brewing industry in Buffalo in the old days. The popularity of the book led to a series of appearances on national television, which ultimately led to his getting into film and production work for the networks. (And maybe had some inspirational role in the burgeoning craft beer industry in Buffalo. When the book came out two decades ago, nobody knew what a growler was. Now you can purchase one at any number of quality brew outlets throughout the region.)

And where to from here? What other artists to do film essays on? “I don’t know,” he said. “I want to do people in different genres, painters, sculptors. Art and artists that interest me, that I like.”

“One painter that interests me,” he said, “is Gary Wolfe. I saw some of his work recently. He paints portraits of street people. I like the way he personalizes the issue of homelessness. He puts names and little paragraph explanations with the portraits, to give some backstory. It all made me stop and think, this is not just a painting of homelessness. This homeless person is real. It humanizes the person in the painting.”

Powell noted the influence on his personality and career—and penchant for asking questions and telling stories—of his father, Ed Powell. No longer with us but not so many years ago an iconic figure—beard, dashiki, always on his bicycle—around North Buffalo especially. A sociologist by profession, but philosopher in spirit, and author of a book on anomie, the collapse of social structures and related sense of personal alienation and disorientation.

“I read my father’s book, read it a lot, studied it,” Powell says. “And that’s what affects me more than anything.”

Asked what he remembers most about his father’s book, he thought for one second and said, “Two things immediately come to mind. In 1908, Hitler had no shoes on his feet and was a beggar...

“And the whole story my father told of the social and political history of Buffalo, the scandals, the crime, the social discord, or anomie. It gave me a feel for what a rough and tumble city this was. It inspired the Rushing the Growler book.

“All my father did was ask questions and tell stories. It’s what I’m trying to do in this project, ask questions about art, and tell stories. Have a conversation.”

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