When Amber Cowan was 7, she became enchanted by an old set of frosted-glass pink elephant swizzle sticks she found in her basement. “They were kind of my favorite things,” says the Philadelphia artist, now 35, who has loved glass ever since.
That sense of connection to objects – and the memories and meaning they contain – lend heart and soul to the extravagant sculptures Cowan creates out of recycled vintage glass. For the past six years, she’s been collecting broken or cast-off pieces of pressed-glass tableware made in American factories in the 20th century – those inexpensive candy dishes and vases so many of us grew up with or remember from Grandma’s house. Using flamework and other hot-sculpting methods, Cowan turns their shards into wee flowers, leaves, spikes, feathers, marbles, and other odd little shapes. She then arranges hundreds upon thousands of them (she never counts) into breathtakingly detailed wall works, vessels, abstract forms, and set pieces, often with fragments of the original products embedded like hidden treasure in the composition.
“Some of my pieces are like little theaters, with characters,” Cowan says of the kittens, cows, camels, butterflies, and other whimsical creatures – originally perfume bottle lids, bubble bath stoppers, and the like – that populate her lush, fantastical realms. Other works she approaches more as painting or sculpture. In all, she plays to sublime effect with light, form, and especially color, indulging in a palette of old-time glass hues with romantic names such as rosaline, peach blow, Burmese, and chocolate. The outcomes range from sweetly nostalgic to wantonly edgy, though Cowan never treats her material with irony or cynicism, as mere kitsch. Rather, she pays tender tribute to “the past glory and forlorn future” of pressed glass, transforming bygone relics into audacious contemporary art that never forgets its roots.
Her works tell American stories, about glassware manufacturing, consumer fads and fashions, and everyday life. A wall piece she made out of green wares was on display in an airport when it stopped a traveler in his tracks.
“He emailed me,” she recalls, “and said, ‘I stood in front of the case and actually started crying because I remembered, for the first time in 40 years, my grandparents serving me ice cream in those dishes.’ ” People often have poignant responses to her art, she says, and it touches her deeply – “the thought of an object creating an intense memory of something completely forgotten, that emotional attachment.”
As if preordained by her beloved swizzle sticks, Cowan started blowing glass as a student at Salisbury University in Maryland, graduating in 2004. She went on to hone her skill in traditional Italian soft-glass techniques at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, where she was a teaching assistant to visiting master flameworkers such as Paul Stankard, Gianni Toso, and Kari Russell-Pool. She found inspiration in the Corning collections, in particular two French objects from the 1700s – one a miniature stage with moveable players, the other a portable shrine illustrating the life of Jesus, both packed with tiny figurines and decorative elements. “Ever since I was little, that dense aesthetic has been a draw for me,” she says. “My favorite thing was Where’s Waldo?” She was amused to learn there’s an art term to describe her work: horror vacui, or “fear of the empty.”
In 2011 she was finishing her MFA in glass and ceramics at Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, when one day, as she tells it, “I was rummaging around behind the furnaces and found this barrel of pink glass. I thought, ‘Man, that color is really cool. What is this stuff?’ ” Dumping it out, she found bunnies, chicks, and other remnants of a production run of Easter candy dishes from the Fenton Art Glass factory in West Virginia. After making a few pieces with it and realizing old glass could work for her, she began to research Fenton and other great glass companies, such as Westmoreland and Indiana Glass, and to seek out specific colors, patterns, and products.
Today, “hunt and gather” is a key part of her creative process. A few times a year, she makes a “mecca journey” to an industrial glass scrapyard, where she’ll scour a huge, dusty warehouse crammed with barrels of cullet, as waste glass is called, and go home with 600 pounds of raw material. She also prowls secondhand shops and antique malls for pressed glass. “Thrift store shopping has been one of my favorite things to do all my life,” she says. “Now I’ve built it into my job, so that’s nice.” Sometimes choice items appear serendipitously, like the pair of swans she sought for ages, only to find them “just sitting on a shelf, waiting for me” at Philly AIDS Thrift. She volunteers there now, when she’s not in her studio or at her job as an adjunct professor at Tyler.
Then there are the donations of old glass she has received from all over the country, ever since her work started getting exposure in galleries and museums. “People I never even met send me stuff, which is pretty cool. They want to give it new life.” One of her students, a farmer’s wife, launched Cowan on a series of works in white milk glass: “Every generation, the new wife would buy new dishes and send the old ones out to the barn. So she brought me a whole set from her barn. I tried out the color, and it was just beautiful.” In 2014, Cowan won the prestigious Rakow Commission to make a work for the Corning Museum collection. She used Colony Harvest white milk glass (a popular product available through the redemption of S&H Green Stamps back in the day) to create a tour de force of a mythical animal kingdom. Its poignant title: Garden of the Forgotten and Extinct.
As certain colors and patterns become scarce, Cowan worries they’ll soon be not just obsolete but gone forever. “Glass factories are closing or closed,” she observes, “and the molds are sitting there, rusting. They’re going to be lost, and when all the glass is broken, that will be lost, too.” To preserve original designs, she is building a library of 3D scans of old pieces so that their molds can be recreated in any size. (Imagine, she says, “a huge casting of a hand.”) Her upcoming solo show, “Re/Collection,” at the Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts (June 24 – October 8), will feature pressed-glass pieces from her personal collection – not to mention, she promises, some “really decadent” new sculptures.
Once seduced by Cowan’s art, you inevitably look anew at the pressed-glass items in your life. Suddenly you’re curious about those sherbet cups inherited from an elderly cousin; you search online and learn they were produced in the 1950s by the Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. and sold as collectible jars of Big Top Peanut Butter (today known as Jif). The round plate you thought fussy and dated has, you now realize, an amazing kaleidoscopic pattern. That set of delicate emerald-tint dessert dishes that belonged to your late mother – how sad you felt when one broke. Humble items all, yet you can’t help wondering: What magic could Cowan make with them?