Through the mediums of clay, film, and photography, Harriet Hellman uncovers the vulnerability that defines the human condition, drawing inspiration from the vibrant shoreline of the Atlantic coast.
Narratives of Time culminates in the alchemical embrace of an anagama kiln firing in Devon. After being woodfired, Harriet’s pieces become an offering to the elements that birthed them, merging with the essence of fire and ash, thus completing the circle of creation and surrender.
This series represents narratives of material and place, where you interact with the tidal zones on the Atlantic coast. Can you share your personal connection and experiences with the Atlantic Ocean?
Harriet Hellman: My connection with the Atlantic coast comes from a visceral, emotional bond to the wildness of the Atlantic sea. The coastline is worn, torn, and scarred from the rawness of the elements and this process is reflected in my connection to clay which I layer, fold, and tear. This series was made on location in Welcombe, North Devon while responding with immediacy to the elemental nature of the sea and the ancient geological strata of this coastline.
The ever-changing tides bring forth new narratives along the shoreline, imprinting themselves onto the clay, capturing the energy of the moment while celebrating imperfection and impermanence. The Narratives of Time series serves as a reminder that nothing stays the same and reinforces my belief that everything is connected.
The creative journey behind this series appears to be quite distinctive. It involves an initial phase of uncontrolled processes along the Atlantic coast, followed by wood firing in an Anagama kiln in Devon. Could you provide us with more insight into the intricacies of this creative process?
Harriet Hellman: If the sea returns the work to me, it feels only fitting to conclude this alchemical exchange by subjecting it to the transformative embrace of a wood-fired kiln. The Anagama or soda-fired kiln, with its labor-intensive process requiring over 70 hours of continuous stoking by a dedicated team of people, infuses the pieces with an unpredictable essence. Within the kiln’s fiery domain, the interplay of flames, ash, and oxidation conspires beyond my influence, marking yet another surrender to the capricious forces of nature.
Throughout your process of creation, there is water and fire, movement and stillness, unpredictability and control – such an intense experience. Can you elaborate on the concept of ‘letting go of the outcome’ in your artistic process?
Harriet Hellman: The process of engaging with clay directly in its natural environment and subsequently returning it to the sea makes me feel connected to nature. It is about surrender and letting go of the human, to a power greater than myself. I feel a deep connection with the sea and coastline, finding it exhilarating, thought-provoking, and contemplative. The creative process itself mirrors my contemplations on the longevity of humans in contrast with the vast expanse of deep geological time and the Anthropocene’s ecological challenges.
How significant was working with the clay in the context of this project?
Harriet Hellman: For me, clay serves as the ideal medium to convey my creative concepts. Its haptic, transformative quality provides an immediate and meditative connection. When I work with clay in its unfired state, it can capture elements like sand, pebbles, and seaweed, often reshaping the form and unveiling hidden clay layers. If, on the other hand, the clay is taken by the sea, then it is returning to the earth, completing its cycle.
Could you share the story or delve deeper into the significance of one of your favorite pieces from this series?
Harriet Hellman: The layered, cracked, and textured surface of Impermanence (below) is evocative to me of somewhere ‘other’ while reflecting the energy and strength of the sea and the fragility of the geological landscape and human condition.
Surprised and delighted that this large work survived the tide, it needed very careful handling and drying, so that it would not fall apart. Unsure it would survive the wood firing, I was delighted with the results which represent narratives of time, resilience, and strength.
Was the use of film and photography a way of capturing the transient and evanescent essence of your artwork amidst its interaction with the Atlantic coast?
Harriet Hellman: The use of film and photography helps to record the ephemeral nature of my artistic practice in real-time, as it unfolds. Through the act of surveying, sculpting, collecting, and engaging with the inter-tidal zone, along with the subsequent documentation of the work, I can process and reflect on my creative journey when I return to my studio.
Are there any books, authors, or references that have particularly inspired or influenced your creative practice?
Harriet Hellman: Thinking through Craft, Glenn Adamson. The author talks about the art/craft world. He states that ‘art brings forth another world, opposed to the empirical world’ and that ‘materials and process should be seamlessly intertwined’;
Being Ecological, Timothy Morton;
Underland, Roberty MacFarlane;
Films of Ana Mendieta, Covered in Time and History;
Making Waves: Ocean Ecology and Craft.
Interview with Harriet Hellman by Rita Trindade | Images by Michael Harvey.