Buvette Masthead

Canberra’s heart of glass

Catherine Carter

The metamorphosis of raw elements – sand, fire, water and air – into glass has fascinated human beings for millennia.

The art of glass stretches back to ancient Egypt, where the first glass vessels were formed around 1,500BC, but people had long-used naturally-occurring glass, like obsidian, to make knives, arrowheads and jewellery.

As glass art evolved, it became synonymous with the extravagant garlands, fruit and flowers crafted on the Venetian island of Murano, or the dazzling displays of stained glass in church windows such as those found in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

But today, Canberra has built an international reputation for glass talent, with the Canberra Glassworks home to many acclaimed artists and amazing works of art.

One of those artists is Peter Nilsson, a master engraver and coldworker, who has been living and working in the nation’s capital since 2010.

Peter Nillson

Peter Nillson

Coldworking is a collective term for many techniques used to transform glass after the annealing, or cooling, process is complete. This includes grinding, polishing, cutting, engraving, etching, sandblasting and stippling.

Nilsson grew up in a village in rural Sweden, in the neighbourhood of the Orrefors glassworks. He said he was always sketching and designing, and glass became the “most natural” material for him to use.

“I was surrounded by kind grown-ups who let me play in their workshops. I decided to become a glass engraver when I was seven years old,” he says.

Peter Nilsson - Anemone. Photo Martin Ollman

Peter Nilsson – Anemone. Photo Martin Ollman

Over his career, Nilsson has been employed by some of the most recognised names in the glass world, including Orrefors and Mats Jonasson. He spent nearly a decade teaching coldworking techniques and art history at the Swedish National Glass School before emigrating to Australia. Since then, he’s been working as a freelance glass artist.

Peter Nilsson's Rip Tide 2015. Photo by Tim Brook

Peter Nilsson’s Rip Tide 2015. Photo by Tim Brook

Nilsson gets much of his inspiration from nature – a flicker of colour or a slight movement in the human body – and living in the ‘bush capital’ sparks many of his ideas.

“As a European I never stop being fascinated by the unique Australian nature. And at the same time, the seasons and how the deciduous trees changes through the year has always been a great inspiration.”

He says Swedes and Australians are both “nature romantics”.

“We have to deal with nature in a respectful way otherwise it will deal with us. We are not guests who watch and visit nature once in a while. We are a part of it, whether we like it or not.”

Nilsson will be showcasing his techniques during a spectacular engraving demonstration at this year’s Winter Glass Market.

Peter Nilsson - Anemone 2. Photo by Martin Ollman

Peter Nilsson – Anemone 2. Photo by Martin Ollman

The subject of this work is the Huldra, or the lady of the forest, who appears in Scandinavian folklore, literature and film. She’s an “elusive spirit who plays games with lonely men”, Nilsson says, and often appears as a “whispering voice over your shoulder”.

Nilsson’s work will trap the Huldra in aqueous glass for eternity, and one lucky visitor to the markets will take home the piece. To bring this project to life, the Canberra Glassworks has launched a crowd-funding campaign on Pozible called Bringing Huldra to Life.

The Winter Glass Market, which will be held on Saturday 17 June, will celebrate a European winter theme, with hands-on activities from making gingerbread ornaments and upcycled snow globes to bead-making at the Viking Bead Furnace.

There will be fairy tales told in the Blackforest Fairy Grotto and visitors can warm up on glühwein, gin and schnapps while listening to polka, jazz or Eurovision hits. The event is free for the whole family.


Nilsson’s sketch of the Huldra

Beverly Growden, General Manager of Canberra Glassworks, says most people who visit the glassworks are captivated by the hotshop and hot glass blowing, but Nilsson’s project will “reveal some of the magic and beauty of engraving and working imagery through layers of glass”.

“Peter Nilsson is the master at this art form,” she adds. And he’s living right here in Canberra.

Join the Pozible fundraising campaign and help the Canberra Glassworks Bring Huldra to life during the Winter Glass Market.


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author