Disegno No.8

Hilda Hellström's anthracitic archaeology


11 April 2015

In summer 2013, designer Hilda Hellström discovered anthracite.

A highly dense and lustrous form of coal, anthracite has become a new focus in Hellström's design practice. Hellström's work since her graduation from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 2012 has embraced emotional and instinctual responses to design objects, imbuing the works she creates with a quasi-mystical, magic-realist quality. Her graduation project from the RCA was a series of vessels made from radioactive soil taken from the Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan; while her Sedimentation Series of urns have swirling colours like fantastical geological strata. Until her discovery of anthracite, she had largely worked with jesmonite, a plaster-like material that easily accepts pigment.

The first of Hellström's experiments with anthracite, Pressure, was a set of two monolithic arches that she created for an exhibition of her work at the Göteborgs Konstmuseum in Gothenburg, Sweden in December 2015. The project is the subject of Pagan Practice, a profile of Hellström in [Disegno No.8]((http://www.disegnodaily.com/magazine), which is available to buy now.

Hellström's work with anthracite has continued since then. Healed Fractures is a series of sculptural forms cut from the material, their cracks filled with coloured jesmonite sediment; the series is currently on display at the Gustavsberg Konsthall in Gustavsberg, Sweden as part of group exhibition Radical Friendship.

As research for Pagan Practice, Disegno spoke to Hellström at the unveiling of Pressure in Gothenburg. Below, we are delighted to publish an edited transcript of that meeting, in which Hellström discusses her fascination with the material; sourcing it from a Welsh mine; and her fascination for natural forces.

I want to talk about anthracite; what exactly is it and how does it differ from coal? 

It's called bituminous coal in English, which is a common kind of fuel. They call it "soft stone” and it's put under pressure in the Earth's crust. This pressure, combined with heat gives you a metamorphic process and it becomes anthracite. The density is much higher. It becomes very shiny. I'd been interested in working with it for a year and a half, ever since I found it at an artists' residency in Scotland. I went out for a hike and on the road I saw this black shiny lump and thought, “What is this?” I mean, it had probably fallen off the back of a truck. I asked someone and found out what kind of material it was. Then I did a lot of research about coal and the coal chain.

Just because you'd seen that one piece and liked the way it looked?

Yeah, and I figured there must be an interesting geological process behind it. I'm interested in geology. But the thing with carbon is that it's very illustrative and pedagogical. It's a material that is used throughout its different metamorphosis processes. It’s a fuel as both bituminous coal and anthracite; then it becomes graphite, which is used for pencils; and then later on it becomes diamond. It's a true hierarchy of material.

That's embedded within it?

I think that's very interesting. I wanted to create shapes that talked about this metamorphosis process. So that's why it's called Pressure, and that's what I created these architectural arches that are structured by pressure and are kept up by pressure. I work a lot with the emotional response to things, so it's important that it's communicated straight to you: the weight, the pressure. 

There is a tactility to the arches. They're very raw. As far as I can tell they're shiny where it's natural and uncut, and then you cut it and you get a much more matte surface.

Exactly. But you can polish it up. This is just the starting point of working with anthracite. I really want to to dig more in to the material and how I can do smaller works with it. And treat the surface in different ways. 

The arches are quite pagan in a way aren't they? 

Yeah, why is that? I mean, I try to do something modern, but this is what always happens. It always goes back to that!

Why do you think there is that edge? It's always an imagined past. It's beautiful but quite fantastic. Where does that edge come from? Do you plan it?

I suppose it’s just because I don't really like glitzy and happy. I'm attracted to something slightly darker. You can almost see that something serious happened there. You don't know what it is, but if that's a feeling or a notion that you can communicate, then I like to do that. 

How did you find the mine in Wales where you sourced the anthracite from? They’re not something people would typically know about. 

Through a university in Sweden. We don't have anthracite here, but they said we could get it in Wales and Scotland. Then I called a British organisation that promotes the coal industry and they said I could contact this mine. I was going to go to London anyway to visit the design festival in 2014, so I went to Wales afterwards to meet up with them. I love these kind of excursions.

How was the mine with you doing this? Often when you have these old heavy industries, when someone presents something like an art project to them they're often confused at first and don't really get it.

They really wanted to help out. They thought it was quite exciting, and also I was so excited to be there. When they have visitors they're usually people who are used to anthracite and the coal industry, whereas I was like, “Oh my god, that's amazing! A huge machine!” So they saw it in a new way too.

You seem to be able to inject a certain excitement into humble materials. If anthracite is a fuel, that's something very workmanlike, whereas your work with it is very beautiful. Similarly, jesmonite is quite cheap, but it's transformed and looks very beautiful though the processes you subject it to. 

Exactly. Anthracite is also quite cheap, but it has this shiny quality and I think it looks more expensive than it is. But something that's also interesting is that I work a bit with the artificial in relationship to the real. Jesmonite is an artificial material that tries to look natural through the addition of pigments, but anthracite is a natural material that looks artificial. If you aren’t familiar with it, it kind of looks like plastic.You don't know what it is, but there is a feeling or a notion there. And I like that.

When you were at the mine, what was the format of your visit? Did they present different samples?

I came there to have a face-to-face conservation to see if what I wanted to do was feasible. They have a lot of knowledge, even though they don't use it in the way I was proposing. It's very interesting because everything they've built there is like an ecosystem. They know a lot about geology and the nature around there and how to take care of it.

So then you picked the pieces of anthracite that fit your purpose? 

No I had to order them. They don't take up these kinds of pieces normally. It was a big job for them. They take up smaller pieces. They're too heavy to take out in these huge sizes. I got these phone calls saying, “This was a bit more difficult than we thought.”

Natural forces have been a recurrent theme in your work. Why is that? It's been so consistent. 

I grew up in the countryside, and have a close relationship with nature. What I like about natural forces is that they're powers we can't control. I think that the philosophical part of me also goes together with the idea of being humble towards nature. Like, what do we do here? Why are we here? I don't know if that's a good answer!