By: Cristina Eyler
Brian Powell, this month’s Orchid Gem, can be best introduced with the common saying “a man of many talents.” If a hobby involves artistry, aesthetics, and technical engineering-like thinking, Brian is interested! As orchid hobbyists surely can agree, collecting and growing orchids requires all of these traits.
Brian’s interest in orchid growing started while living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “You know, I don’t quite remember exactly how I came into the hobby. I think it might have started with my HR manager who was going on a trip to Hawaii.” The manager brought back a few orchids and gave Brian a Vanda. He realized he needed to know how to grow it and decided to join the Baton Rouge Orchid Society. Eventually, that first orchid died, but he was impressed by how much people knew about very specific things about each orchid, such as their full Latin names.
The displays he saw while part of the Baton Rouge Orchid Society (and later, with the OSWP) left him awestruck. “All the orchids are so aesthetically pleasing and the members were so detailed with what they did. They paid such close attention to every detail about the displays which is something I long to have.” When Brian moved back to Pittsburgh, he went to Phipps Conservatory and felt that same way about the huge display he saw there. In 2014 or 2015, he attended his first meeting with the OSWP and joined right away. “I do a lot of travel, so I am not a regular attendee, but I’m impressed by how people display their orchids. It really gives me an orchid-related inferiority complex! I really appreciate the artistry.”
Now, Brian owns ten orchids. He has a few Tolumnias, Phalaenopsis, Cattleyas, and Vandas. “I bought a mini-Vanda at a 2016 orchid show in Pittsburgh. It hasn’t bloomed yet unfortunately, but it is still growing!” Two of the tiny ones are mounted on cork/bark magnetic displays. His orchids reside on a kitchen windowsill and atop pedal stools by the fireplace. “I’ve killed more orchids than the number of orchids I currently own! Once, I left my plants with my wife, Sherry, who has no green thumb. She put them in low-light, watered them once a week, and mostly forgot about them. Go figure, they did well!”
While the orchids themselves are beautiful, Brian has taken orchid growing one step further using his technical skills and artistic eye. He makes wonderful planters out of birch with intricate artwork on the outside, several of which he has brought with him to meetings for all to see and purchase. “There used to be a Makers Space in Bakery Square where I would go to use the 3D printers and laser cutters. I liked to make wooden artwork with the equipment. When the shop closed down, I bought my own laser cutter to make these planters and other pieces of art.” You can view Brian’s work at his Etsy shop, CubeAccents.
Brian’s father was in the Army, so he moved a lot during his childhood and experienced many different things. He was born in Germany (he learned to ski in Bavaria; how cool is that?) and went to school at Cornell University where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. “I wish I had taken some electives in hospitality, as this was always a background interest, but the demands of my engineering curriculum did not allow for this. In my years following university, I was able to explore this hospitality/culinary arts interest more extensively and periodically dabbled in part-time catering.”
After attending university in New York State, Brian continued to move around. He has lived in Maryland, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. He had lived in Monroeville once before from 2001 to 2003. International travel is also on his list of experiences as he had lived for seven years in Montreal, Canada, where his son, Sean, was born and lived for one year in Norway. Consulting work as a mechanical engineer in project management has kept him moving around and seeing new things.
Besides orchids and woodworking, Brian also enjoys international travel, interior design, indoor rock climbing (“bouldering”), and exploring anything that moves, such as motorcycles, drones, and electric cars. He is also quite a cook and can make a wide variety of dishes including gumbo, crabmeat quiche, and cheesecakes. While living in Louisiana, Brian entered a cheesecake into a cooking competition. He received a call informing him he had won second place and was asked which restaurant he was working for. The people running the competition had assumed Brian was a professional chef!
Although seemingly disjointed, Brian believes there is a certain commonality that unifies his interests: it is all about new experiences and constant learning. Whether translating a design into laser-cut functional art, experimenting with a new recipe, or growing orchids, having a vision of the end-goal is important, but is not the only element. “I try not to expect instant perfection because I realize that everything is built on a constant progression of learnings and experiences. In many cases, especially where orchid growing is concerned and for the benefit of those interested in becoming a member of OSWP, the joy comes from patiently incorporating the time-taught details into the overall process while enjoying the journey towards whatever is your ultimate destination.”