90 and Going Strong

Saturday afternoon, November 30th, a 90th birthday celebration was held at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery for Barbara Cowles.

Attended by two dozen immediate family members and several dozen more well-wishers, the Lynn Lovejoy Parlor was festive and crowded. Among those with whom I had an opportunity to speak were ceramist (and Frans Wildenhain student) Peter Gerbic and woodworker-sculptor (and Wildenhain SAC faculty colleague) William Keyser.

Barbara’s long and distinguished career includes roles as librarian at the downtown campus of Rochester Institute of Technology, followed by a move of short distance from Main to Troup Street where she was manager of Shop One, the innovative retail store for contemporary crafts.

And that’s not counting her marriage to Hobart Cowles (Frans’s professional partner in ceramics at School for American Craftsmen) and raising a family!

Barbara was among the first people I interviewed when initiating the Wildenhain project. I’ve known her, then, for only a tiny fraction of her life.

Interestingly, in perhaps a Jungian way, even before meeting Barbara, I had a more than 20-year old “connection” to her. Two-plus decades earlier, I went to look at a piece of furniture then owned by her daughter-in-law, Laura. As part of that mission, I met Barbara’s son, David.

David Cowles and Laura Wilder are today both well-known artists. He, as a caricaturist, and she, for her Arts & Crafts-style block prints.

Barbara, then as now, was generous with her time, patient with her pupil, and informative. Her memory of Shop One, including its many and varied artists and equally heterogeneous customers, was flawless and deep.

She had, by the time I met with her, given her scrapbook of Shop One “archives” – including newspaper clippings, stationary, Shop announcements, magazine articles and related ephemera – to the University of Rochester. (Today, these materials are held by RIT Archives.) Were it not for her foresight, valuable historical information would have been lost to time.

And while I spent several pleasant days at the U of R’s Special Collections library pouring through and taking notes from those fugitive documents carefully saved by Barbara, it was the conversations with Barbara that humanized and filled out the story of Shop One. I tell that story, “Selling Crafts at Mid-Century: Moving the Merch at Shop One,” in FRANS WILDENHAIN 1950-75.

Happy Birthday, Barbara!

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