Biographical / Historical
Robert Sowers (1923-1990) was an influential contemporary stained glass artist in America during the mid-20th century. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sowers was raised in Florida and then moved to New York City for college. After receiving a B.A. (1948) from the New School for Social Research and an M.A. (1950) from Columbia University, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in 1950. This grant enabled him to study at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1950-1953. Initially, Sowers’ studies at the Central School focused on oil painting, but his interests soon changed to the art of stained glass. While in London he researched medieval stained glass, and then traveled throughout Europe to study both medieval and contemporary stained glass windows. He was particularly impressed by the work of postwar German reconstruction and the windows being created by contemporary German artists. At the Central School he also met his first wife, Theresa Obermayr, who was an artist and stained glass enthusiast as well. She passed away in 1976.
Inspired by his extensive research and travel, Sowers developed a “vision of stained glass as a full-blown architectural art form” (Stained Glass Quarterly, 1990, p. 89). Once back in the United States he began to write about and implement his innovative ideas and principles on the structural approach to stained glass design. Over three decades, Sowers published four books that influenced the transformation of contemporary stained glass in America, and he executed numerous architectural glass commissions. His abstract designs for churches and synagogues, as well as secular institutions, garnered him considerable attention. In 1955, he was awarded a silver medal from the Architectural League of New York for his work on the windows at St. George’s Church in Durham, New Hampshire. Other significant commissions include: Temple Beth Emeth, Albany, NY; All Saints Episcopal Church, Palo Alto, CA; and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, NYC, NY.
Sowers’ most notable work was for the façade of the American Airlines Terminal at John F. Kennedy International airport in New York. Begun in 1957, the window was unveiled at the opening of the Terminal in 1960. It measured 317 feet by 22 1/2 feet and was one of the largest stained glass windows ever commissioned. His bold, graphic statement helped to “singularly set the stage for contemporary stained glass in the United States” (Westfeldt, 2008). In 2008, the window was dismantled and the Terminal torn down in order to make room for additional American Airlines buildings.
Sowers died of cancer on March 20, 1990. He was survived by his second wife, Judi Jordan Sowers.
Erikson, E. (1991). In memoriam: Robert Sowers, 1923-1990. Neues Glas, no. 2, 31-37.
In Memoriam. (Summer 1990). Stained Glass Quarterly, 85, 89.
Westfeldt, A. (2008, February 20). JFK airport dismantles famed stained glass window. USA Today.