Philadelphia-based artist Amber Cowan has been named as the recipient of the Rakow Commission in 2014.
Combining old glass and new, Cowan’s art references consumption, reuse, and the history of the glass industry through the remaking and re-contextualization of commercial American pressed glass and industrial cullet (scrap glass intended for recycling). Her distinctive vessels and sculptures are made by fusing small, intricately flameworked components with blown glass elements.
Cowan’s source material provides the foundation for the final work, and it is an important conceptual component. Most of her works begin as commercially produced whole or broken wares, made between the 1940s and the 1980s, that are picked up by Cowan at thrift shops and flea markets, or excavated from cullet dumps. These wares might include opaque milk glass tableware in the Colony Harvest pattern from the Indiana Glass Factory, or a flower vase from The Florists’ Transworld Delivery Service (FTD). Cowan reheats and flameworks or hot sculpts the discarded glass—which she notes has been “abandoned to the dust bins of American design”—into tiny leaves, fruits, swans, roses and abstract spirals, bits and spikes.
“Amber takes this ubiquitous commercial glass and gives it a new, cool life, transforming it by destroying it and re-forming it into beautiful and evocatively retro sculptures,” said Tina Oldknow, the Museum’s senior curator of contemporary and modern glass. “Her work addresses contemporary concerns about the sustainability of object making, and I appreciate her fresh take on the potential of what she describes as ‘re-cycled, up-cycled, and second life’ glass.”
With formal training in art history and sculptural design—Cowan holds an MFA in Glass and Ceramics from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and a BFA in 3-Dimensional Design from Maryland’s Salisbury University—she has developed an ongoing series that interprets her research on Early American industrial glass, including the Wheaton Glass Company and Boston & Sandwich Glass.
For the Rakow Commission, Cowan will continue her work using commercial glass cullet, sourced from a West Virginia business at $1 per pound, which she will then melt and draw into rods to be flameworked. Cowan’s palette tends to be minimal, and for the Rakow Commission, she will rework shards and chunks of cullet into an all-white flameworked and blown glass wall sculpture.
Cowan has taught alongside, and assisted, many well-known artists, including master flameworkers Paul Stankard, Gianni Toso, Lucio Bubacco and Emilio Santini. Cowan also taught glassblowing and flameworking at One Sixty Glass and UrbanGlass in Brooklyn. In 2012, she was awarded the international Stephen Procter Fellowship from The Australian National University in Canberra, ACT, Australia and the Steve Stormer Memorial Award from Temple University. Cowan was also one of the featured artists in The Toledo Workshop Revisited, 1962–2012, a documentary film produced by the Robert M. Minkoff Foundation.
In addition to her practice as an independent artist, Amber is an adjunct professor in the glass program at the Tyler School of Art. She is represented by Heller Gallery in New York City and her next solo show, Amber Cowan: Second Life Glass, will open at The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco this fall.
Inaugurated in 1986, the Rakow Commission is awarded annually to artists whose work is not yet represented in the Museum’s collection. The commission supports new works of art in glass by encouraging emerging or established artists to venture into new areas that they might otherwise be unable to explore because of financial limitations. It is made possible through the generosity of the late Dr. and Mrs. Leonard S. Rakow, Fellows, friends, and benefactors of the Museum. Each commissioned work is added to the Museum’s permanent collection and is displayed publicly in the Museum’s Modern Glass Gallery.