Amber Cowan’s intricate glass artworks are both beautiful and strange. Whether you view them up close or from afar, they appear to be so delicately cut and assembled that they couldn’t possibly be made by a human hand.

Take The Dreams of a Descendant of Sirenuse, as an example. The more than four-foot-long diptych, which Iowa State University’s Brunnier Art Museum commissioned from the Philadelphia-based artist in 2021, is full of florals, leaves, musical instruments, bubbles and nude women made of fleshy pink glass. Cowan worked an upcycled 1930s vase into the whimsical scene, a lady adorning it like a mermaid-style masthead on the bow of a ship. “She is being called home by her long-lost sister sirens,” she wrote.

If you’re looking for Cowan, she’s likely to be picking through scrap yards of now defunct pressed glass factories or hunting in flea markets or thrift stores for glass that has been molded by hand or machine. (“Pressed” glass, first patented in the United States in 1826, is also referred to as “pattern” glass; the glass was pressed into molds, which were sometimes very detailed in their designs of fruit, flora and fauna.) Whether it’s cake plates, vases, fruit bowls or candy dishes, Cowan revels in the novelty and history of her found material.

Amber Cowan's Dioramas of Vintage Glass Will Transport You to Whimsical Worlds
Cowan adapts her process for each of her pieces. Often, she’ll mold her ornate works by heating the glass in a kiln, then sculpting it with a torch and bonsai shears. Amber Cowan

It’s an interest she developed and deepened as a student at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, where she received her master’s in ceramics and glass in 2011. In the past decade, Cowan has exhibited her work at galleries and museums in New York, Tennessee, Idaho, Florida, and even Denmark and China. This year, she received the Smithsonian Women’s Committee Delphi Award, given to midcareer American artists who experts predict will reach the pinnacle of sculptural arts and design. “Of the 15 artists under consideration, Amber Cowan is most likely to make the greatest contribution to the art of this century,” said one of the curators involved in ranking nominees, according to an official statement.

Cowan adapts her process for each of her pieces. Often, she’ll mold her ornate works by heating the glass in a kiln, then sculpting it with a torch and bonsai shears. Other times, she’ll use glassblowing, shaping the glass by blowing air through a long tube into semi-molten material.

“The organic stuff in the majority of my pieces—the feathers, flowers and flowing stuff—is handmade by flamework using cullet,” says Cowan. “Cullet” is scrap glass that is crushed up and suitable for remelting. The artist separates the glass, which she sources from what was the Fenton glass factory in West Virginia or the Cambridge glass factory in Ohio, into color piles, then hones them into their final shapes through the very physical act of flamework or glassblowing. Both techniques are inherently dangerous, operating with high heat and heavy tools.

Amber Cowan's Dioramas of Vintage Glass Will Transport You to Whimsical Worlds
Fountain in Rosaline, 2021 Amber Cowan

“That’s 95 percent of my pieces, recycled glass,” she adds. “I supplement the pieces with focal points, sometimes faces, figurines or animals, using original antiques that have been donated to me, or that I’ve searched for in antique stores, eBay or thrift stores and found.”

After a story on her work appeared in the New York Times in October 2022, Cowan received an influx of emails offering family collections and antique pieces.

“One family gave me their artist mother’s entire collection, some of those pieces from the late 1800s,” she recalls. “It was thousands of pieces, which I drove to Vermont to pick up.”

Amber Cowan's Dioramas of Vintage Glass Will Transport You to Whimsical Worlds
Fountain With Fans in River and Jade, 2022 Amber Cowan

Cowan’s works range in size, but she is not guided by collectors, gallerists or curators in deciphering dimensions.

“I make what I want,” she says. “I like making big works, but any bigger than The Dreams of a Descendant of Sirenuse is too heavy and difficult to move around my studio by myself. Bigger works can take months; however, I work on a lot of pieces at once. I’ve also started to make miniature pieces.”

Cowan’s sculptures come in duck-egg blue, pastel lavender, pale pink, pistachio green and beige. “All of the colors are essentially dead stock material, and, for the most part, these colors will never be produced again,” she says. “They all had a time in history when they were popular.” In the 1920s, the Cambridge Glass Company sold now-collectible tableware in a distinctive beige it called “Crown Tuscan pink,” the dominant hue in The Dreams of a Descendant of Sirenuse.

Amber Cowan's Dioramas of Vintage Glass Will Transport You to Whimsical Worlds
Hummingbirds Feast on Helio and Lavender, 2021 Amber Cowan

“When someone looks at my work, there is no question of whether a woman created it,” says Cowan. “The femininity in my work is not something that I use as a political statement. It is just what comes out of me. I can’t imagine having a male leading character in any of my pieces, because, in a sense, they are a self-portrait.”

She likes the dichotomy of the unabashed femininity of her work—full of flowers, women, breasts, swans, baby animals and dancers—juxtaposed with the male-dominated history of glassblowing as an art form. Cowan says, “Glassblowing has traditionally been male-dominated, and that was the case when I was a student, but then all of my mentors post-graduation were women. I teach at Tyler School of Art, and the majority of the faculty and our students are women. Things have really changed the last 10 to 15 years. I see women dominating in the contemporary glass scene.”

Cowan does not upcycle or recycle American pressed glass merely for the sake of sustainability. The material itself carries history, stories and lessons for the artist.

It was at the Tyler School that she discovered a barrel filled with discarded pastel-pink glass. She subsequently melted it down and fired it in the same way she’d been treating other glass. Some investigation into the origins of the pink glass revealed it to be 20th-century Easter candy dishes made by a pressed glass factory in West Virginia. The glass and the dishes made from it were popular in the 1960s. In our current age, when many find their memories last only as long as the most recent social media trend or sensational news headline, it is rebellious to celebrate the relics of American design, and to honor an industry that has fallen from public interest in favor of NFTs and cryptocurrency trading.

Amber Cowan's Dioramas of Vintage Glass Will Transport You to Whimsical Worlds
Cherries in Milk With Creamer and Compote, 2022 Amber Cowan

Cowan’s works are so detailed that it is almost an optical illusion to view them from afar, seeing only the vague shapes and monotone color of the work at first. Viewers must commit their time and curiosity to really deciphering all the parts, piecing together a story that invisibly connects their emotional landscape to the work they’re viewing.

“I have been fascinated for a long time now by Amber Cowan’s ability to infuse new life into Depression glass, transforming a material one usually associates with garage sales or period rooms decorated with chintz fabrics into intricate, dynamic and oddly alien scenes,” says Stefano Catalani, the executive director and chief curator at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Washington. He was a member of the judging panel for the Smithsonian Women’s Committee Delphi Award this year. “The allure of her work comes from leveraging the familiarity the public has with the ubiquitous pastel-colored glass of the early 20th century to get us mesmerized by the novelty of her presentations, of newly crafted stories so meticulously articulated. We are drawn in by the recognition of something clearly familiar—the individual pieces now oddly layered and accumulated in new, esoteric ways.”

Cowan explains that she likes “abundance” in her work—“packing it full.” To accomplish this, she says, “I have invented forms that are the most interesting and detailed, while being quick to create at the torch.”

She clarifies, “I don’t base my florals, leaves and other organic forms off of any specific natural forms. They are shapes that I have invented for my own library of shapes.”

Amber Cowan's Dioramas of Vintage Glass Will Transport You to Whimsical Worlds
Cowan pictured with Bubble Bath in the Tunnel of Love, 2020 Amber Cowan

“I want the work to feel like its constantly in motion,” says Cowan. “Whether it’s fluttering, growing, flying, swimming or dripping, I want it too feel like when you look away it will still be alive.”

Her signature style has attracted high-caliber collaborations from across the creative industries.

“Right now, I am at the end of a two-year product development for a Czech crystal company named Artel Glass,” says Cowan. With its owner Karen Feldman, Cowan has been developing a set of four glasses to be released in January at Maison & Objet, a major trade fair for interior design in Paris. “I especially love home goods and have been dreaming of some fabrics lately in my designs,” Cowan adds.

There’s plenty of time for unobstructed dreaming in Cowan’s world, which is largely devoted to her practice.

“My work does require extensive hours of solo work,” she says. “I have a private studio and am alone most days. I like it for the most part. I am not someone who desires constant socialization, especially at work, so for me it works. I listen to a lot of audio books and podcasts.”

The intrinsic danger of glassblowing techniques has inevitably left its effects on Cowan’s body, something she seems unfazed by.

“I have gotten some bad burns and cuts throughout the years, but that is the inherent nature of the material,” she acknowledges. “It usually happens if I haven’t had enough sleep or probably shouldn’t be working anyway. I was always a little bit of a pyromaniac, so that aspect does appeal to me.”

Ultimately, she says, “I just really love glass. I have loved it since I was a little girl. Part of the appeal is the craft and skill it takes to work with the material. There is a heritage and history there, and I feel like I am a part of that now.”

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.