When glass artist Fredrik Nielsen steps out onto the Amphitheater Hot Shop floor, he’s confronted by a full capacity crowd where the hush of anticipation is palpable. An aura of energy permeates the proceedings: the team is excited, the audience is wide-eyed, and Nielsen is ready to go.
In this moment, Fredrik Nielsen is the headlining act, and in the glass world, he’s as punk rock as it gets.
On stage, Nielsen oozes charisma, he feels alive, at home, and in control, even if it doesn’t always look that way. “When you see me blow glass, sometimes it looks like I don’t know how to,” he says. “I’m always surprised when I get that feedback.” Because he does know what he’s doing. Glass is not just a material to him, it’s a means of expressing himself. Nielsen has spent almost 20 years learning “how to play,” but in a profession steeped in tradition and the strict rules of physics, he chooses not to. “It’s almost [like] Miles Davis, for example. He could play the trumpet and he knew everything about it, but he chose in the end, to not rely on that, [to] take another turn.” Only Fredrik Nielsen could compare himself to Miles Davis and get away with it. His confidence could easily be confused for arrogance. But when you hear him speak, or watch him perform, it’s clear his swagger is harmless, and his manner charmingly honest.
Born in 1977 in Sigtuna, Sweden’s oldest known settlement, Nielsen had a rather traditional and very Swedish initiation into the world of glass. Inspired by the work of artist Erik Hoglund, he began his training with local design company Orrefors, in 1998, and then later with Kosta Boda. Here he received his basic education in glass. “It taught me how to blow glass, the joy of repetition. It taught me that glassblowing is ten thousand hours at least. Your hands have to do it.”
Once established, Nielsen began to think less about production and more about experimentation. In 2005, he visited the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by Dale Chihuly in the woods an hour north of Seattle. In a community open to everyone and everything, Nielsen grew in confidence and found the freedom to develop his own unique style. He also began to see that glassblowers could be cool. Watching videos of Dante Marioni and Preston Singletary, blowing glass with suitcases full of tools and shades on, really blew his mind. “All the older guys at Orrefors and the factory, they were great and all, but they were no rock stars.”
Nielsen’s quest for cool had begun. By combining music, graffiti, and other elements of pop culture, with an amplified, full-bodied, sweat-inducing performance, Nielsen began to push the boundaries of what glass could do, and what the glassblower could achieve. The decision to start recycling material was a revelatory next step. At Pilchuck he lucked upon an old abandoned fridge — that may have belonged in the Chihuly kitchen at one time — and re-purposed it as gallery space. Open the fridge, peek inside, and you’d find one of his vessels. As Artist-in-Residence at The Corning Museum of Glass in November 2016, Nielsen’s foraging methods quickly became news: he could be found seeking out scraps and shards of glass on the hot shop floor, and scooping them up with the glowing end of his iron. Unused rods of cane, glass cut-off; any detritus left behind was collected up and absorbed into his work. His finished pieces are always an amalgamation of ideas, influences, and trash from the floor.
Lecturing to a group of students in The Studio before the end of his residency, Nielsen discussed the work of French glassmaker Emile Galle, pointing out tiny imperfections in Galle’s sculptures, and referring to him as a ‘punk rocker’. It’s this idea that drives Nielsen, he sees significance in these mistakes, or as he says: “Maybe he’s [Galle] sending a message to me. We’re gonna go punk rock here. Leave yourself on the pieces you make.” And this is Nielsen’s defining philosophy. He’s not out to make something perfect or timeless, he wants something messy and raw, something that screams, ‘I was here!’
Watch the full interview with Fredrik Nielsen.