Mining the Beauty of Coal

Mining the Beauty of Coal

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A sculptural coal table by Zivic honed to a smooth finish in the Ralph Pucci showroom in New York City.

Jim Zivic prizes the mundane material of his functional sculpture for its very non-preciousness.

On any given day, the field behind Jim Zivic’s farmhouse is littered with mammoth chunks of coal, jagged boulders that glitter like black Stonehenge monoliths. This is the unlikely material-anthracite, a common fossil fuel-from which he fashions side tables and benches whose sculptural beauty has garnered the attention of artists, interior designers and collectors around the world.

Zivic is a designer well known for modernist furniture in industrial materials such as steel, harness leather, felt and even raw rubber. But coal? The quirky idea to use it for furniture came to him 10 years ago when he heard mention of a Victorian-era coal table on an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Zivic was intrigued enough to contact the Victoria and Albert Museum to ask if they knew of any such thing. Yes, said the curators, but they’d never seen a piece. He then called coal mines in the Midwest to determine if the material could be available for use other than fuel. Zivic grew up in a Ohio steel town surrounded by strip mines and dairy farms, and with a sizable population of Amish woodworkers. Attracted early to both utility and artistry, he was drawn to design, where both come into play. In 1983, Zivic received a BFA in painting from Ohio Wesleyan, then moved to New York to embark on a career making art furniture.

Given Zivic’s background and bona fides (an uncle had been a union organizer in the coal mines), he easily established rapport with mining company executives, who invited him to “come on out.” His visit to one of the mines was “kind of depressing, but visually amazing,” he says, referring to the immensity of the strip-mine operation and the gigantic earthmoving equipment in use there. He found the miners intrigued by his ideas, proud of their product and willing to deliver the coal to his property in New York’s rural Schoharie County.

Handling the 2,000-pound boulders—Zivic says they invariably arrive at 6 a.m. via tractor-trailer—proved a challenge beyond the scope of ordinary craftsman’s tools. To reduce the boulders to manageable size, Zivic requires the services of an Albany stonecutting firm specially equipped to move and cut massive pieces of ore. “They have platforms on railroad cars,” says Zivic, “and a truck with a boom arm that can pick up three or four tons.” With a six-foot-diameter diamond-embedded saw, the stonecutter rough-cuts boulders to his specifications; Zivic then transports the table-size chunks-each weighing several hundred pounds-back to his property where he uses power tools to further shape them into functional sculptures. (Small chunks get transformed into tabletop sculptures and bookends.) For most of the year, Zivic uses the back of a flatbed truck as an open-air work platform. The coal pieces can then be driven back up the hill to his studio (a long, low, retrofitted chicken coop), where honing (which produces his preferred soft satin finish) and/or high polishing is done. (The polished surfaces are virtually dust-free and therefore 99 percent clean to the touch.) Each of the finished tables is a unique form-some organic, others more rectilinear in shape-and each displays the veining and fissures characteristic of coal, a sedimentary rock formed over eons from fossilized plants. Zivic embellishes some pieces with pools of molten pewter or tin; or, in some instances, he makes “doilies” by splattering molten metal on a cold surface, where it hardens. The doily is attached to the coal as a powerful graphic element akin to a Pollock-esque gestural brushstroke.

Zivic prizes coal, perhaps the most mundane material on earth, for it’s very non-preciousness. He feels there’s a certain virtue in avoiding trendy-and often endangered-woods, like wenge, which are often touted in contemporary interiors. “I’ve processed 50 tons of coal so far,” he says, reflecting that while he can’t call himself “green” exactly, he’s at least saved the earth from the polluting effects of coal that otherwise might have been burned for fuel. He has also created an astonishing body of work evocative of the great stone-carver artists he admires-Noguchi and Brancusi among them-but unique in concept and material.

Andrea DiNoto last wrote for this magazine about the ceramic artist Kathy Erteman.