It’s easy to get lost in Amber Cowan’s work. Reconfigured from found glass, her intricate pieces are a riot of pastel glasswork vegetation—flowers, leaves, and mushrooms—that delicately frames figures of animals (deer, snails, and swans) and women, who could be interpreted as stand-ins for the artist herself.
All are crafted from midcentury glassworks that she sources from flea markets, thrift stores, and defunct factories, then melts and hot-sculpts into complex feminist, autobiographical, and mythological vignettes, from ballerinas surrounded by founts of flora to classical nymphs. Cowan sees her works as new fairytales crafted by her hands and mind, and not without a good dose of wit: “I joke that the bridesmaid got sick of the wedding and wandered into her own fantasy world,” she says of a chameleon-green figurine dreaming alongside a deer in her Bridesmaids Forest (2017).
Cowan—a finalist for the Museum of Arts and Design’s 2019 Burke Prize—has been a glass artist for nearly two decades, working in a fashion meant to highlight the history of the American glass industry. Her interest in glass stems back to her childhood, and she pursued the craft as an undergraduate at Salisbury University and later the graduate program at Temple University, where she began working with pressed glass, a popular midcentury technique in which molten glass is compressed into a patterned mold.
“I was making work that looked similar [to my current sculptures], but I was running out of money,” says Cowan, now a faculty member at her alma mater’s glass department. “I found a barrel of old pink glass that was collecting dust at the school. I tested it out and thought, ‘Huh. This is 150 pounds of free color that no one wants.’” After graduating in 2011, Cowan continued to work with glass, fusing it with her interest in history.
Strangers who have seen Cowan’s work regularly send her castoff glassware as potential material. Last year, a Michigan woman sent her a broken candy dish that her great-grandfather had won at a fair in the late 1800s. Drawing from Venetian glass-sculpting and flame-working techniques, Cowan remelted the dish alongside sections of a periwinkle and sky-blue epergne centerpiece (sourced from West Virginia’s now-defunct Fenton Art Glass Factory), using a 5,000-degree tabletop torch. After shaping the molten glass into countless leaves and flowers with bonsai shears and annealing the result in a 1,050-degree kiln, The Engagement of Orzo and Cara Wilson (2018) was complete.
Today, the over eight square-foot sculpture hangs in Florida’s Imagine Museum. Pressed glass’s heyday might be behind us, but Cowan’s transformations of the thrift-store staple suggests it could see a 21st-century resurgence.
Image on homepage: Amber Cowan, Snail Passing Through the Garden of Inanna (2019).