As a new exhibition opens looking at the demise of the steel industry in Redcar, Ruth Addicott talks to artist Hazel Dixon about the inspiration behind it

Staring at the desolate wasteland and derelict steel plant from the window of the train, Hazel Dixon thought about the devastation the closure of the steel works had caused in her hometown of Redcar and came up with an idea.

Using steel plates covered in rusted images of the industrial plants and collapsed habitations of Redcar and Middlesbrough, Hazel created more than 150 original pieces of art, capturing what the steel industry meant to people in the local community and what it is left of it today. The stark images and striking art works are now going on show in an exhibition at the Heritage Gallery in Middlesbrough.

“I know from experience of living in Redcar surrounded by people who have lost their jobs how much devastation it has caused to the town,” says Hazel. “A lot of older men have lost their jobs. There are families with dads, granddads and great granddads who have all worked there. I just felt like it was a message that needed to be told. Redcar and Middlesbrough are struggling; South Wales is also going through a similar thing and I think more people in the country should be aware of that.”

Hazel, who is from Redcar, came up with the project while studying Fine Art at Teesside University.

“The idea came from travelling to Middlesbrough every day on the train and seeing all the steelworks,” she says. “At that time they were actually closing so I took a walk down to South Gare. I took my dogs and it felt like it was out of a movie or something. It was unreal. I felt as though I was on a different planet or as if the world had had come to an end. It was really weird and I thought it was a good inspirational point for my work.”

Hazel took some photographs and started experimenting, first with wood and black paint. “Then I thought, it’s a steel plant, why not just use steel and start to rust it, that’s what the place feels like - old and decrepit. So I started to screen print photos I’d taken onto the steel sheets and it just worked,” she says. “I wanted to create dark, grungy pieces of art to represent the struggle of working class people living in the UK and the feelings people have about the demise of the steel industry within the local community.”

It was a slow process and took about a year or so to take all the photos and put it all together. It also took a lot of experimenting and different methods, trying to find the best way of rusting the steel sheets, which took a day or so to settle.

“Sometimes the rust wouldn’t take to the steel plates and I thought I’d have to leave the steel sheets out in the garden or something,” she says. “In the end, I actually used vinegar and peroxide and a bit of salt. It didn’t always work, but it worked well enough and it was much quicker.”

Hazel sourced the steel from a local supplier in Saltburn, a friend who uses steel to make marquee lettering and had some scrap going spare. She started off doing small prints on small sheets of steel, but as the project grew, she started ordering bigger and bigger sheets. The collection now features around 150 art works.

Although her work has been on display in Scarborough and Redcar before, the show at the Heritage Gallery will be Hazel’s first solo exhibition. The gallery, located in the Cargo Fleet Offices in Middlesbrough – formerly owned by Cargo Fleet Iron Co Ltd and British Steel Teesside, explores the region’s industrial heritage including iron and steel, ship building and bridge building and is dedicated to keeping the history of Teesside alive.

Individual art works from Hazel’s collection will also be for sale with prices ranging from £60 to £100. “I never thought it would turn out like this,” she says. “It has been a bit of a journey for me and I’ve learnt a lot exploring all the different methods.”

Having graduated with a 2:1 in Fine Art last year, Hazel is currently supplementing her passion for art by working part-time. With the industrial landscape of Teesside as a backdrop and major inspiration, she is now keen to do more projects around the same theme. For her next project, she is planning to create an A4 ‘book’ using steel sheets as the pages with images of different steel plants and dilapidated parts of Middlesbrough and Redcar.

At some point, Hazel says she also hopes to go to South Wales to see how the demise of the steel industry has affected towns there, such as Port Talbot. “I’m just fascinated by the history,” she says.

Cold Steel a Dead Industry by Hazel Dixon will be shown at the Heritage Gallery at Cargo Fleet, Middlesbrough from March 2 -31, Mon-Fri, 8.30am-5pm. Admission free.