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Small Ant Workshop

Small Ant Workshop

Small Ant Workshop

December/January 2017 issue of American Craft magazine
Liz Cowee Bracelets

Sulfur Pit, Rotorua, New Zealand, 2015, resin, pigment

Liz Cowee

Vast landscapes have held Liz Cowee’s interest ever since she was a young child in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Ultimately, she would channel that passion into a jewelry business. But there were detours along the way.

After graduating from high school in 1999, she was accepted at the University of Vermont but decided to defer her education for one year to join Up with People, a touring musical ensemble. “In high school I was drawn to the performing arts, so when I had the chance to join the tour, I did it wholeheartedly.” She traveled with the group internationally for a year and, in retrospect, says the experience helped her learn to adapt to different people and situations, a skill she has put to good use every day since.

Cowee enrolled at UVM in the fall of 2000 and initially planned to make her fascination with nature her focus by studying environmental law. But she quickly realized that a law degree wouldn’t make her heart beat faster. She switched her major to art history, with a minor in studio art – a choice that exposed her to metals and jewelry. Things began to click. After graduating in 2004, she earned a certificate from the Gemological Institute of America and was hired as a bench jeweler in California, which fostered her interest in running a jewelry business.

The next few years saw several moves and jobs, including a stint at a Vermont gallery and entrée into the event-planning business in Maryland. By 2014, she felt equipped to take her own first steps into the business world, and she teamed up with a friend to open Paper Rock Scissors, a gallery for handmade goods in St. Michaels, Maryland. “When we started out, we didn’t really know what we didn’t know,” she reflects. “Neither one of us had any marketing experience to speak of, but we loved our artists, and we worked very hard to make the gallery a success.”

Cowee would have preferred to keep running the business, but the partners had different priorities, and the venture came to a close after a year. “I wouldn’t call our closing a failure,” she says. “I definitely learned a whole lot about marketing and business management during that time, and that has been invaluable.”

In the meantime, she had been continuing her own work in the studio but found herself losing interest in metal-based jewelry. In an effort to stay connected with the craft, she refocused by experimenting with new materials and came across resin. She poured her first bracelet, just to try it out.

“When the bracelet came out of the mold, I saw a pattern that looked like a water landscape to me, and my interest was instantly piqued. There was an immediate connection to my long-held fascination with nature.”

Since that first pour, Cowee has entirely reverse-engineered her making process. She launched Small Ant Workshop in 2015 and now takes her cues from landscape photography, artfully translating those images into color and patterns in resin. “People always think my work has the original photo in it, but that’s not the case. It’s all in the mixing and matching of pigments.”

In the future, Cowee wants to take Small Ant Workshop a step further. “I look forward to creating jewelry from landscape photos my customers bring to me, images they have personal connections to,” she says. “Creating bracelets from those photos would be very meaningful.” 

Nature At Hand

In the moment:
Making jewelry helps Cowee step back from a life full of deadlines, budgeting, media stimulation, and parenting her young son. Working is her way to slow down, recharge, and live in the present.

Perspectives: From being a bench jeweler to running her own store to working solo in the studio, Cowee has seen the jewelry business from many angles.

Captivated: Whenever Cowee finds herself in nature, she feels overwhelmingly inspired to create. “Whether I am outdoors in real life or looking at landscape photography, I am reminded that I am only a small piece in a great big mysterious and wonderful world.”

Brigitte Martin is the founder and editor of Crafthaus, and president elect of the Society of North American Goldsmiths.