Profile: Amber Marshall

Is it my imagination, or is the world of craft and the arts (at least in the US) a pretty gender-bound place? (I’d love to be proven wrong.)

But think about it: restaurants have traditional gender roles (chef is male, pastry chef is female–yes with exceptions). Or when was the last time you saw a female orchestra conductor? And what about the Starchitects? Zaha Hadid ain’t exactly the only woman in the world of architecture.

In the world of craft, while ceramics and metal work tend to be pretty evenly distributed between the genders, wood is still pretty male (though DesignCraft Heroine Liz Dunning and a few others have broken the mold). Textiles and fibre? Women. And glass? I’ve noticed a tendency for kiln-formed and cast work to be more the province of women, while men do the hot, sweaty, macho work of blowing glass.

There are reasons for this, of course, physicality being one of them. When you’re talking about materials, size and strength matter, and that’s OK. (Of course, I didn’t think that a conductor’s baton–or a pencil–was really that heavy, but then maybe that’s just me.)

So that’s why we love to see those people who break the mold, especially without a lot of fuss. People like St. Louis-based Amber Marshall, glass blower.

Amber, whom I came across at the prestigious and invitation-only Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, DC, busts the stereotypes in a couple of ways.

First, she’s…well, a she. Fabulous.  And in a craft where pretty much everyone tells you that you need your 10,000 hours and then some, she’s young.

And next, there’s her work: she puts paid to the notion that glass can only be swirly, multi-colored and mired in the quicks and of Venetian tradition. (Not that we have anything against tradition, we just like to see evolution, that’s all.)

Her colors are exuberant, and she’s thoughtful, restrained and disciplined in their application. The forms are simple, strong, while contrasting textures add depth, intrigue, and tension. Nicely done.

The work is fun, cheeky, sleek, exciting, pop, and totally contemporary. Glass–which seems to take itself terribly seriously–rarely has such personality, such ebullience.

And of course, the work matches the personality of the maker.

We started out with a chat about the state of the glass blowing world.

Why is it so hard to find glass that we like? I think a lot of times what happens in glass is that the process itself is so compelling and exciting that people get lost in the process and forget about trying to create something with great design.

For a long time I hated everything I made, although I loved the process of it: I loved blowing glass, but the end result wasn’t so exciting. But about 5 years ago, I started to see what I could do to make the whole thing–the blowing, and results–more enjoyable.

I love your colors: they’re so bright and cheerful without falling into that swirly trap. The funny thing is that I’m not really a color person! If I could just blow clear glass, and work with textures and transparency, that would be great. But clear glass doesn’t sell…which I don’t understand because it’s so beautiful and so simple. (I hear ya, sister.) With colors it’s hard: I worry that my work could become too saccharine…the colors I’m drawn to tend to that direction.

How’d you get into glass? I’m from St. Louis originally. Years ago there was a Dale Chihuly exhibit at the St.Louis Art Museum. I was mesmerized. Love him or hate him, but what he does do is to get people who are not interested in glass interested in it. And that was me. I started obsessively getting glass blowing books. At that time, I was a sociology major at the University of Illinois Chicago, but decided that I wanted to be an art major. Did you have the art gene to begin with? You could say that. I’d always been interested in art though I wasn’t much into drawing. But it was enough to get the ball rolling.

So I transferred to Illinois State…and started learning glass blowing. After college, I was fortunate enough to get a job assisting 2 local glass blowers, and I learned quite a lot from them. Then I started working at a public access studio called Third Degree Glass Factory, where I currently teach glass blowing classes, as well as making my own work.

But what is it about glass? Apparently, I’m attracted to shiny things! And I love that it’s a super-cooled liquid, and that it’s so fluid. It’s got so much potential.  And again the process itself is so challenging and rewarding.

And any issue with being a female glass blower? Nothing, it’s just something I like, not any big statement. It’s a ton of hard work, but I also do a lot of cold work and cutting, grinding, even acid etching.

Talk about your distinctive look. How’d it get there? I don’t know! I’ve always been interested in form. In some ways, it came from looking at things that I don’t want to do, you know? I’m certainly not interested in pattern. In glass, it seems you either go for form or surface decoration and I was much more interested in form and challenging forms and texture.

I’m always paying attention to color palettes around me and seeing what’s soothing and what’s good. I think it’s one of the deficiencies in glass work: the color combinations are just awful. (Yup.) I spend a lot of time thinking about that. It’s not like painting where you can create endless palettes. I have to put together great color combinations with the limitations I have.

Where does someone like you who doesn’t love a lot of traditional glass look for inspiration? Well, it sounds a little simplistic, but often the medium itself is the inspiration, thinking about what I can and can’t do with it, and trying to challenge that for myself. I’ve also been looking a lot at artists outside the glass world like Maya Lin and Andy Goldsworthy–and particularly how he creates such beautiful texture. So not colorists, then? Not always, but sometimes it’s a painting, a design blog.

What’s the strangest thing that’s inspired you? My showerhead with the bumpiness of spigots…I’m about texture.

Talk about life in what Jonathan Franzen referred to as the 27th City. I didn’t grow up IN St. Louis: I grew up in an area that’s not quite rural, not quite town. I grew up surrounded by cornfields: great but terrifying if you watched Children of the Corn. I live in South St. Louis right now.

I wouldn’t say St. Louis is on our radar as an arts community, but I’m probably being unfair, there are pockets everywhere. Is there a strong arts community in St. Louis? I suppose I am more aware and more involved in the growing glass community in St. Louis which often feels separate from the arts community as a whole. There are people making efforts in the city, opening up independent galleries, etc. but I think the issue with St. Louis is that it lacks a strong Fine Arts institution with a crop of young artists cultivating and strengthening the community. But St. Louis certainly is an affordable city, perfect for the “starving artist”.

So you’re pretty new at this. When I met you, it was your first Smithsonian show. This is only my second season of shows. Yes, it was just in the last 3 years that I decided that I either need to do this, or find something else. I was in the middle of the road for so long. So I’m trying to find my place in the marketplace, find where I want to position myself. I don’t sell to stores yet and am just setting things up. I’m kind of new to the retail selling.

Who buys your work? I don’t have a good read on that yet. Little girls love it, love the color (moms buy for daughters, which is so cool)! I hear a lot people refer to my work as fun, whimsical, a little quirky!  I’m uncomfortable saying it’s unique…

What’s the hardest thing for you? Confidence. (No one else has that problem, do they?) Having the confidence to put it out there…well I could do better at it.

What are you listening to in the studio these days? I’m currently addicted to the new Bon Iver record, but that’s more of a solitary cold shop (grinding and polishing) listen…In the hotshop it’s more communal and we use Pandora internet radio a ton. My current go-to stations are Vampire Weekend, Santigold and Deer Tick.

OK, who plays you in the movie of your life? I could only hope for someone as awkward or funny as Tina Fey. I love funny ladies, like maybe Lily Tomlin. But I’ve been told that I have a likeness to Zoe Deschanel. (Life’s hard!)

And the genre of film? It would have to be a bumbling comedy. Something like Adventures in Babysitting, where one dumb mistake leads to a whole story.

What about transcendent moments: what comes to mind? I’m not a very serious person. Can’t really name that moment. (Perfect!) I used to get in trouble in church and school where you’re supposed to be quiet. (You too?)

Outside of glass do you have an obsession? Oddly, for a flat lander, I love backcountry back packing. At least once a year I love to go. I have a life list of famous backpacking places I want to go to: I went to Patagonia last year. My dream is to have a glass shop in a backcountry town.

What 5 things define you?

  • My closet…it’s a little organized, and a little bit messy….and that defines me. Gives you an idea of one aspect of my personality.
  • My dogs (dachshund, and a golden retriever mix. Right now we all have the same hair color. I’m kind of embarrassed to walk down the street with them! (Does your dog hang out at the studio? He’s developed a new anxiety around this torch I use and he gets totally freaked out.)
  • An opal ring my grandmother gave me.
  • And old brown beat up oxfords that I’ve had forever, which I hope to be wearing in the nursing home when I’m really old!

Gotta love this girl. And her work. Thanks, Amber.


All images courtesy of Amber Marshall


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