Artist Recycles Vintage Glass Into Intricate Narrative Landscapes

This glass artist resurrects discarded glass from closed factories, junkyards and flea markets by creating lush scenes.

recycled glass art amber cowan

 Constance Mensh

What stories could our old, forgotten objects tell, if they could speak? Would they faithfully recount the minuscule details of our daily routines, those moments of private contemplation, bouts of loneliness or existential doubts, or perhaps the blaze of those split-second epiphanies all of us have in our quietest moments?

Based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, glass artist Amber Cowan is someone who is fascinated by such untold tales. She reuses wine and beer bottles, and old glass scraps that have been rescued from closed factories and junkyards, as well as glass from antique items found at flea markets. Using techniques like flameworking, hot-sculpting and glassblowing, Cowan remakes these scraps and cast-offs into incredibly detailed glass-scapes that seem to tell their own phantom stories.

recycled glass art amber cowan
Matthew Hollerbush

Cowan's creative process starts with some curation: specifically, she selects a piece based on its color, and then begins to collect various glass figurines and animals that fit in with that color palette. She melts and reworks the various glass items in order to organically create densely packed scenes that seem to come alive with imaginary flora and fauna.

recycled glass art amber cowan
 Constance Mensh

Cowan's work is filled to the brim with complex details that are a feast for the eyes, and often relate back to a fantastical version nature. For instance, in this piece titled "Hen Collecting All of Her Ova", we see at the center a hen guarding an open egg-like object, with amorphous genetic material spilling out.

recycled glass art amber cowan
 Constance Mensh

The watchful mother bird is surrounded by an abundance of leaves, flowers, and fungi, all meticulously crafted.

recycled glass art amber cowan
 Constance Mensh

In addition to hunting down glass antiques, Cowan's work also incorporates recycled "cullets" or discarded scraps of pressed glass, a type of molded glass that was once popular from the mid-1850s to the beginning of the twentieth century.

recycled glass art amber cowan
 Matthew Hollerbush

As Cowan explains, her intricate, diorama-like glass art pieces "tell stories of self-discovery, escapism and female loneliness by utilizing figurines and animals found in collected antique glass pieces. These figurines become recurring symbols in the evolving narrative and simultaneously pay homage to the history of U.S. glassmaking."

recycled glass art amber cowan
Matthew Hollerbush

Cowan's use of recycled pressed glass was a happy accident, borne out of the simple fact that new glass material was costly. She tells us:

"When I began working with this type of glass it started out of a financial need for more inexpensive material. I was in graduate school and found a barrel of old pink glass behind the furnaces of the studio. This barrel was filled with a run of broken pink easter candy dishes with rabbits and chicken lids. The color was beautiful and technically it melted very similarly to the glass I was trained to work. This almost coincidental discovery transformed into a passion for history, industry and a new love affair with the material to which I was already in love. I began researching the rich history of the stories and formulations of the colors I was finding. These barrels of color are often the last of their run and my work will essentially give the formulas their final resting place and visually abundant celebration of life."
recycled glass art amber cowan
Amber Cowan

Besides this practical aspect, Cowan says that she now even receives vintage glass pieces from complete strangers from all over the country, who need to get rid of them, but want to ensure that these nostalgic pieces are revived and reused somehow.

recycled glass art amber cowan
 Amber Cowan

In one instance, Cowan says that she received two antique pieces from the 1800s, from a woman whose great-grandfather had won them at a state fair. These were given to her great-grandmother as a gift. Not wanting them to toss them out, the woman sent it to Cowan.

"Sometimes they just don’t want it anymore, but it’s a family heirloom or it has some sort of sentimental value, so they send it to me so that it may continue living through my work," Cowan explains.

In artfully reusing these glass cast-offs, both from industry and from families, Cowan's innovative work preserves the collective and individual memories that are secretly contained within these everyday objects – something that makes these beautiful pieces all the more meaningful. To see more, visit Amber Cowan.