“What I create with my hands is something unique … I can’t make it up in advance.”
“GLASS,” SAYS FREDRIK Nielsen, “is the best glue in the world.” From an artist who has devoted 24 years to the art of glassblowing, this is a provocative way of looking at his material. But Nielsen, with his curly blond quiff and rocker jacket, likes to rebel against the mainstream. Now, however, with gallery representation in Stockholm and London, and selection as a finalist in the LOEWE Craft Prize 2022, he has arguably joined it.
Swedish glassworks such as Orrefors or Kosta Boda have traditionally distinguished between the roles of designer and glassblowers. For Nielsen, in contrast, the process of making his work is essential to his artistic conception. “What I create with my hands is something unique,” he says, “I can’t make it up in advance.” He treats glass as a language of self-expression, comparing his sculptures to improvisations by Miles Davis, or Keith Jarrett in his Köln concert. Like them, Nielsen’s ability to connect with his material in the moment, to ‘excavate’ something within himself, is the product of many years of trial, error and practice.
Born in Linköping, Sweden, in 1977, he first thought of going into art aged 16, when his mother brought home a ceramic vase, “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” Although it was “ugly”, there was something about its “big volume” that captivated him. “I loved it … That experience, for me, was profound.”
In 1998, he began a course at Orrefors Glass School in Småland, a southern Swedish province renowned for glassmaking. The programme was designed to train apprentices for the glassworks through an arduous and repetitive focus on technique: how to make a goblet, or work clear and coloured glass. “To become a master glassblower,” says Nielsen, “you don’t need ten thousand hours, you need twenty thousand.” His early idols were American virtuosos such as Dante Marioni. Today, the glassmaker he most admires is Willam Morris, known for his skill in hot sculpting.
Upon graduating, Nielsen worked as a glassblower for Bertil and Ulrica Vallien at the Åfors glassworks, and then as a teacher and demonstrator. In his spare time, he experimented. “Nobody knew that I was developing my own style.” Studying at Pilchuck Glass School, the Corning Museum of Glass, and Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Arts enabled him to establish himself as an independent artist. In 2015, he set up his own studio in Stockholm, ‘The Garage Stockholm’.
For Nielsen, the energy and spontaneity that each work demands, and his physical impact on the material, are what make it art. Design aims at “perfection”, an aesthetic which he rejects as being “too superficial, too easy.” In contrast, “art comes screaming at you”: it is about the immediate transfer of feeling from artist to viewer. Does beauty still matter? “Yes, But I don’t want to go there too fast.”
As a hot sculptor, he works in short bursts: blowing and manipulating the glass for an hour or two, then leaving it in the annealer to cool, then reheating and ‘gluing’ on another part. Like a painter, he sometimes leaves a piece aside for months before adding another layer. Depending on its bulk – some of his ‘giant’ sculptures weigh 50 kilograms or more – he will employ between one and five assistants. To knead, pound and scrunch the glass, he uses the pontil like a broom.
In ‘This Coming and Going’, from ‘Mixed Emotions’, his trio of sculptures for the LOEWE Craft Prize 2022, Nielsen took an underlay of neon green and yellow glass, and wrapped it in layers of clear glass, like cellophane. On one layer he painted his name and mobile number – a recurrent motif and a sort of cry for attention – in lead-based enamels. He then reinflated the glass, distorting the text.
‘You’re Not the Only One’, from the same group, involved “rolling up a lot of blue colour bars”, reheating them with flaming torches and working them into clear glass; he uses elements like these to “create tensions” and add “hardness” under the fluid surfaces.
Nielsen’s urge to communicate can be seen in the motif of the handle, first introduced in his series of slumped metallic ‘Pitchers’. The handle is an “introduction to the viewer”, providing a moment of recognition in an object of jolting unfamiliarity.
In ‘Suitcase in My Hand’ (2022), a central bubble of blown glass, ‘punched’ into a crumpled mass, is also topped with a handle, itself a repurposed choker from a commission for Diesel. The result has been coated in aluminium and yellow paint to imitate gold, in a way that draws attention to every fold in the deeply textured surface.
“Art doesn’t need to be described all the time,” Nielsen insists. “Just watch it like a kid and be amazed.” His own sculptures have that hypnotic quality: whether in admiration or shock, it is difficult to look away.
Fredrik Nielsen’s entry to the LOEWE Craft Prize 2022, ‘Mixed Emotions’, will be on display at the finalists’ exhibition in Seoul from 1st July.
Fredrik Nielsen is represented in London by Vessel Gallery and in Stockholm by Wetterling Gallery.