Francisca Onumah: Lines without Limits

In the first part of this series on early career makers, Jonathan Foyle spoke with Francisca Onumah whose unorthodox and poetic style of making has fused with a profound sense of place and identity.

Sheffield’s greatest gift to the world was accidental. In 1743, when Thomas Boulsover of the town’s Company of Cutlers was repairing a client’s knife, to his surprise he overheated it whereupon suddenly molten silver fused to cheaper copper. For a century, such metallic sandwiches offered economic silverware until Birmingham’s George Elkington developed the electroplating method which revolutionised cutlery manufacture, and Sheffield’s adoption of the process made the city famous across the world.

Today’s Sheffield is the home of the Blades football club, a nod to what are now former industrial glories. But vigorous new life in metalcrafting is found at Persistence Works, a purpose-built artist-maker complex opened for Yorkshire Artspace in 2001. Studio 20 is a light, elevated jewellers’ workshop with a view framing the jagged skyline of the city. There, Birmingham-trained Francisca Onumah persistently taps and heats copper or silver to transform their character and expression into forms that will never lead to the breakthroughs in mass production, standardisation or cost-cutting that put Sheffield on the map. She is an artist-maker who produces one-offs. But like Elkington and Boulsover, she does depend on both science and happy accident.

Francisca found this space in 2017. Choosing a studio was an important decision, for a room in itself is never enough. She admits that “it takes me a while. I like to move things around to change the scenery, I’ve moved my work benches a few times and I’m slowly making the space my own.” Serendipity in design and craft is so often a by-product of preparing the right conditions for exploratory creativity, for it is sustained concentration that steers pieces to only half-anticipated conclusions through thousands of compounded judgments. Space, light, furniture, tools- and a sense of belonging- all contribute to the creative moment, a place where serendipity can emerge, where you make your own luck.

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She was fortunate enough to receive the gift of a jeweller’s bench from one of her mentors, Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill, which provides the necessary focus for much of her layout and preparation. But she adds “my favourite place to be in my space is at the anvil texturing the sheet metal.” The key is not to over-prescribe the shape of the vessel or form she is creating through precise drawings. “I usually have a form in mind when making, I like to draw but I never really refer to the drawing when making. I sometimes draw the pieces after I’ve made them.”

Francisca explains that she works mostly with copper, because “I tend to find that copper takes on a lot of marks and holds the worked surface in a raw way. It has the ability to hold texture.” This facility for expression is due to the warm-coloured metal being softer than silver, which is more rigid- especially sterling. “It takes more work to get that raw texture. But for difficult and intricate shapes I like the hardness of silver.”

i Murmur Vessels and Beaker

The strands of her inspiration thread across two continents. Her early childhood was lived near Accra, Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. The long school holidays were spent with her four energetic siblings creatively directed by her older brother Adiel. At their grandmother’s bungalow near the coast, in the sand-beds of her garden, they would draw collaborative designs of houses that they hoped to live in some day. So began her obsession with drawing, though she has long since traded sand for sketchbooks.

Francisca’s father is a well-travelled agricultural economist. She recalls him returning from foreign assignments laden with outfits of rich and colourful fabrics that might be worn for special occasions or Sunday best. What attracted her were the embedded patterns of batik work, or the marbled tie-dye of a Kenyan kitenge – a popular dress across sub-Saharan Africa. Each pattern and weave left its impression, especially those that betrayed evidence for the method of handmaking. Their manifested imperfections were early lessons she deeply absorbed, which chime with the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi, celebrating the ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’ as more natural states than attempted perfection, permanence and wholeness.

…most metals begin their lives as dull, irregular ore: it is we who render the stuff into polished planes, and that is a choice.

Her parents had wanted better educational prospects than Accra could offer. So when she was eight, the family headed for England. They arrived in Chatham to discover that life on the Medway estuary was a quite different experience to the equatorial Gulf of Guinea. They would live in a terraced house, “squeezed together” through long winters in three bedrooms rather more cramped than the American-style mansions the children had imagined in their sand-drawings. But developing her drawing further brought new freedoms – lines without limits, spaces and forms her imagination could inhabit. Her family still say they don’t know where her talent came from, but her recollections build the causes and effects in stages, like the making of one of her vessels.

Her earliest memory of manipulating metal was here in Chatham in her early teens, finding scraps of wire and twisting them into shapes, perhaps an animal like a fox, suitable for a pendant. Today you might find wire or pipes on the surface of her work, a tension between fabric, ceramic and metal. This deliberately cultivates confusion when we are accustomed to metals routinely expressed as lustrous sheets or tubes. But most metals begin their lives as dull, irregular ore: it is we who render the stuff into polished planes, and that is a choice. She chooses to embrace complexities and imperfections to confound and engage us. Closer inspection of her pieces might reveal the impressions of rolled printing, or soldered features, hammered patterns, folds, surfaces like animal hair, the witness of heat and force.

i Francisca in the workshop

These complex and often anthropomorphic envelopes shroud hollows as if costumes, dressing figures more distilled, more diverse and more static than the human body. Instead of seams being filed and smoothed, they are exaggerated, honesty over denial. The cultural DNA might include Hans Coper’s mid twentieth-century studio pottery, its essential character reached through abstractions belonging to no particular time or place but the layers of memories and associations that trigger a powerful recognition of ‘essentialness’, a spiritual poetry that finds its place on Coventry Cathedral’s altar steps. Achieving that sophisticated essence takes intellectual refinement, cultivated through education and experience.

Following her schooling Francisca took to college at the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, a walk away from home. This foundation year prepared her for her degree in Jewellery and Silversmithing at Birmingham. The industrial city had witnessed 20,000 metalworkers at its peak in 1914. Its red-brick Jewellery Quarter, which hosts the School of Jewellery, is now regenerated as a living heritage site of 19,000 residents, an inspiration to many who would revivify the industry for the twenty-first century.

Francisca’s approach to metalwork is unorthodox. So, was she a rebel at college, and still now? “No. I don’t think so. I feel I’m unconstrained, but I still appreciate the work and discipline that goes into [traditional] silversmithing. I just can’t make things to a pattern- I have to shape them and change them in the process. That’s what keeps me fascinated.” So speaks the artist.

i Sterling Silver Vase

Making objects is half the story; running a business is the other part. Both her degree (2014) and MA (2015, also at Birmingham) trained her for commercial realities, setting prices and understanding how to showcase work. Her degree pieces were displayed at the 2014 New Designers show in Clerkenwell, and its last day saw her first sale. Francisca remembers it clearly, a collector from New York with an apartment in London who simply recognised something that spoke to her.

Her style draws inspiration from renowned silversmith artists David Clarke – disruptor of the traditional – and Simone ten Hompel, whose essays in seam, surface and simplicity clearly rubbed off on Francisca. Yet for any graduate, the path to establishment can seem daunting. Even the cost of raw materials can be prohibitive.

“At one point, when I moved into Sheffield I had three part-time jobs as well as the silversmithing to keep me going”, she says, work which took her into a catering company’s kitchen. Do graduates from wealthy families gain an obvious advantage in setting up as silversmiths? “You certainly need creativity, originality and skill, not to mention the drive to pursue a successful career in silversmithing. However, it’s a really expensive craft, not only are the precious materials, tools and machinery needed to set up a workshop expensive, you also have the expenses of the fairs. Not having to worry about how you can afford to make without the restrictions of what materials to use and whether you can afford to set up a workshop is definitely an advantage.”

She explains that you also have to be patient to realize the value of shows, which represent a medium-term investment in building awareness and a client base. “It can take a couple of years to see the return, but now I have a handful of returning collectors.” Her future works will rely on her own collection of tools, like textured and cross-pane hammers used after she has folded sheets by hand to discover how her own force affects the metallurgy of copper and silver, through which to start a piece. Her favourite is the ‘Murmur’ water jug and cup for the ‘Precious Little Gems’ commission from Sheffield Assay Office in 2019, exhibited in the City’s Millennium Gallery. The jug, of an anthropomorphic body and hollow head, accompanies a cup as an apparent offspring. The parental expression of communication seems as important as the function.

The current pandemic has of course thrown a spanner in the workshops of makers everywhere, but she is resolute about the path ahead. “I think many people have rediscovered what home means, and the need to concentrate on things that are important and meaningful to you.” This seems a natural opinion for her, the logic of simultaneous reduction and enrichment extended into a principle for living.


Author: Jonathan Foyle | Photo Credit: Jerry Lampson, Marc Baker and Ben Boswell

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