The College of Humanities and the Arts is saddened by the loss of Harry Powers, Professor of Art at San José State from 1958 to 1995, who passed away in December. He will be missed.
Harry Powers had a profound love for the natural world—the light of the stars above, shadows cast on the earth below, and everything in-between. As a child, he would venture with his father into the wilderness of Idaho to camp and fish. These experiences shaped him and his work; one childhood memory stood out in particular: a ceremonial Native American dance full of drama, intensity, and pride. This glimpse into the world of art and culture gave Powers a means of expression, an escape for the questions and emotions that swirled in his mind.
Powers studied at SJSU, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and at Stanford, receiving his M.A. in Art in 1953. He began to work with “architectural art” such as mosaics, stained glass, and concrete facades for high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley. As he gained more experience, his repertoire continued to grow: sculptures, castings, paintings, even an entry in the 1975 San Francisco Museum of Art Soap Box Derby. His work can be seen throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia. Closer to home, his art is featured at the Palo Alto Art Center and the San José Museum of Art.
Throughout his artistic career, Powers continued to explore different materials and mediums. In the 70’s, collaboration with industrial technicians led to his discovery of new techniques for sculpting sheet acrylic. The resulting sculptures appeared weightless, like “paintings of light”. These sculptures reflected Powers’ fascination with light and refraction. Other pieces celebrated the dignity of primal cultures and his love for the earth and the cosmos.
In a short statement on his website, Powers writes:
“The definition of art that I like best is that of Susanne Langer who said, ‘Art is that which makes the felt and the sensed tangible, so that others might contemplate it’. Intuition seems more valuable than deductive reasoning and I seek to make work which is provocative to the viewer’s imagination. As in much of jazz music, the content is evoked rather than literarily narrated. I incorporate any techniques or materials which help articulate the works, ideas, and feelings”.
Powers wanted his art to do more than please the eye; he wanted it to give the viewer a peek into his mind, to see things the way he saw them. He believed that art consisted of three things: the viewer, the idea or the “felt”, and the work of art itself, in-between. It was up to the artist to communicate how they felt, to bridge the gap.
This philosophy extended into his teaching at San José State; for over 30 years, he encouraged his students to focus less on theory and to trust their imagination and instinct. He strived to find creative new ways to open his students to new ideas and new ways to see the world. Professor Emerita Dr. Charlene Archibeque recalls: “He asked me to come speak to one of his seminar classes, which he held in his own living room, about ways I use space in arranging my singers for rehearsals and performances. How many other art teachers teach space by bringing in a choral director?”
Powers served as an in-between for many people; he supported his students and fellow colleagues and attended alumni and emeritus events after his retirement. He was also a large part of the San José-Dublin Sister City Program, encouraging cultural relations between the two cities. In 2015, he won the Spirit of Ireland Award, a bronze sculpture he crafted himself.
Everything Harry Powers did, he did with joy. Reveling in the wonders of the world around him, nourishing the talents and minds of the people who loved him, creating beautiful art to reflect the ideas that defined him, and everything in-between.
Please visit his website, https://www.harrypowers.com/, to see Professor Power’s artwork or visit his permanent collections at the Palo Alto Art Center and San José Museum of Art.
If you have any memories or stories of Harry that you would like to share, or would like to read what others had to say about him, please visit this page.