In Remembrance: John Cogswell

January 30, 2024

John Cogswell portrait

We are saddened to hear of the passing of John Cogswell, who was a long-time SNAG member and supporter and who served on the SNAG Board of Directors from 2004-2005.

The following was provided by Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, Professor, Art/Metal Program, SUNY New Paltz:

John Cogswell, the esteemed silversmith, educator and SUNY New Paltz alumnus, passed away on January 23, 2024 at the age of 75. The metal and jewelry field has lost one of its premier craftsmen, whose lifelong commitment to the discipline has had a major impact on its many artists, students and teachers.

Born in Cortland NY, Cogswell’s creative studies began at SUNY Cortland and blossomed at SUNY New Paltz under the mentorship of the late Kurt Matzdorf, Head of the Gold and Silversmithing program (Metal). John earned his BFA and MFA degrees at New Paltz, showing tremendous talent even at this early stage in his development as a silversmith. Cogswell’s silver and blue spinel Decanter, 1979, made at the conclusion of his BFA studies, was selected for the highly competitive national exhibition sponsored by the Sterling Silversmiths of America, Statements in Sterling ‘79, at the Lever House in NYC. The exhibition showcased his outstanding craftsmanship and defining style to a large audience.

This early work is part of the Permanent Collection of American Silver at the Yale University Art Gallery. Curator of American Decorative Arts, John Stuart Gordon notes,

Decanter exhibits many of the stylistic elements for which Cogswell would become known: dynamic, angular shapes; areas of surface texture; and set stones. It speaks to the dynamism of late 1960s and 1970s design, echoing the swooping compositions and articulated elements that define the period. For many, Cogswell was a ‘maker’s maker’ and a mentor. The Decanter speaks to the interconnected generation of students, teachers, and colleagues.”

Cogswell’s work resides in many private and public collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum (UK), The Jewish Museum (NY), and The Metal Museum (TN), among others.

As Kurt Matzdorf’s protégé and studio assistant, John Cogswell was instrumental in the construction of SUNY New Paltz’s ceremonial mace and chain of office, among other commissioned secular, religious and ceremonial works. The collective experience prepared Cogswell to establish his own silversmithing business which he managed throughout his career.

While actively producing numerous commissions, Cogswell was also deeply involved in teaching. It is through his tremendous expertise and generous instruction that Cogswell made his greatest contribution to the field.

In 1979, John Cogswell became the Director of the Jewelry and Metalsmithing Program at the 92nd Street YM/YWHA in New York City for two decades, expanding the program into the largest of its kind in the country. During this time, he taught at Hofstra University, Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and at SUNY New Paltz.

John Cogswell later served as Adjunct and Instructional Support Technician at New Paltz from 2001-2010, while writing the comprehensive textbook, Creative Stonesetting (Brynmorgen Press, 2008). The book has become a must-have text for aspiring and experienced stone setters alike. Cogswell authored many articles on a vast array of technical topics. These important resources are published in books and in Metalsmith, published by the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) – the field’s most significant, national professional journal. Beyond SNAG, he held professional affiliations with the Society of American Silversmiths, American Craft Council, Empire State Crafts Alliance and the Florida Society of Goldsmiths.

John Cogswell retired from the formal academic setting to devote more time to the workshop instruction that he loved so much. Teaching countless courses and workshops at community centers and craft schools across the country, Cogswell had a passionate following of students who took his workshops. Many returned to enjoy his charismatic and precisely informed tutelage. An extensive list of schools include Brookfield Craft Center (CT), Touchstone Center for the Crafts (PA), Penland School (NC), Florida Society of Goldsmiths (FL), and especially Arrowmont School of Crafts in Gatlinburg TN, where he where he taught a dizzying range of workshops annually for over thirty years.

As a colleague, John Cogswell was a technical guru, a model of efficiency, and a font of information on so many levels. All were blessed by his abundance of patience. Cogswell’s chalkboard drawings are legendary; beautifully executed, they were captured by students quick with their camera before the next class arrived, when they were erased. He described many things in terms of line, whether it be an arabesque edge on a silver vessel, or the path of engraving by his confident hand.

A person of great integrity, John Cogswell was a trusted caretaker of the studio and learning environment. His sense of humor could be wry, sharp, unique, and all at once inviting. One student described him as “an absolute wizard!” and offered this remembrance:

“he told us to be careful not to clench our jaw for long term health. He said ‘I prevent it by singing along with Barbara Streisand while I work!’  We all loved that. He was a very generous educator who shared his vast knowledge with a smile. He was incredibly encouraging while also holding us accountable. Some teachers lord their knowledge over students as a master ruler, but John always used his experience to inspire, to make us be better, and help us realize our full potential. I’m so grateful for his example of skill, humility, and humanity.”

John Cogswell’s benevolence extended to the animal kingdom, especially cats, who he frequently rescued and nurtured. He will be fondly remembered and deeply missed by all who had the good fortune to know him.

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