Using round wire, sheet metal and traditional tools and techniques, Sheffield-based silversmith Josephine Gomersall has found a way to make the impermanent, permanent; capturing the fleeting beauty of flowers in materials that last the ages. Her exquisitely delicate individual precious metal stems are gentle and nostalgic, summoning childhood memories of wild flowers from meadows and the wayside.
Josephine’s latest collection Florilegium is set to debut at Shine 2021, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s annual exhibition of new talent in jewellery and silversmithing. The collection title Florilegium derives from the Latin words flos, meaning flower, and legere, meaning to gather. The pieces are a celebration of common wild flowers, leaves and grasses that one might encounter on a nature walk, recreated faithfully in lustrous sterling silver.
For Josephine, earning a coveted spot in the Shine 2021 cohort is indicative of what has been an auspicious start to the second major career of her life.
“Originally, I was working as a textile designer and product developer, liaising with suppliers and going to textile mills and factories to oversee manufacturing”, she explained via video call during a recent interview with the Goldsmiths’ Centre. “I became increasingly fascinated with how things were made, and what equipment was used at every stage of the making process.” Josephine describes the style of her work as “delicate and decorative drawings in precious metal”.
During her time in textiles, Josephine nurtured a slow-burning ambition: a growing desire to change career. Like many makers who find their vocation later in life, or through non-traditional routes, she was waiting for the right moment to transition from one industry to another.
“I used to go to contemporary craft fairs, and I think I secretly aspired to be a designer maker and exhibit myself one day. I signed up for evening classes in jewellery making and printmaking, and then later ceramics, too. Straight away, I was hooked. After I’d had children, I decided to make a really firm commitment to pursuing that as a career. I relocated to Sheffield and started a three-year part-time MA in Design, specialising in jewellery and metalwork, so that I had a recent qualification in my new venture.”
Josephine’s trajectory towards success continued following her Masters degree at Sheffield Hallam University, when she was selected to join the two-year Starter Studio programme for jewellery and silversmithing at Yorkshire Artspace, aimed at fostering new talent.
“Whilst I was on that programme, I registered with the Sheffield Assay Office, got my Sponsors Mark and started exhibiting and selling my work.” She now shares a new workshop with two other makers at Yorkshire Artspace's Persistence Works studios. “I’ve found a really supportive community here, made up of emerging makers, more established makers and also master silversmiths - so it is a very nurturing environment.”
From early on in her career, the themes and motifs of Josephine’s work were innate, almost instinctive, pulled from childhood memories and associations: “I was thinking about why my theme is botanical, and it predates my Art education. It stems right back to childhood and visits to my grandparents’ garden and my mum pressing flowers in the Yellow Pages. I think that is why my work taps into that nostalgic theme, and a sense of familiarity”, she said thoughtfully.
“I've always said my design style is delicate and decorative, but I think it does have a sensibility as well. It is kind of fragile, yet strong and organic – there are no hard edges and angles. It is soft, gentle and quiet. Somebody recently described it as having powerful feminine energy, which I really liked. I am making precious metal still lifes, really.”
As an emerging maker, she expounded further on this botanical theme, furnishing her work with a wider message about our often-fractured relationship with nature in the modern world.
“When I was working on my final project for my MA, I wanted to make work that spoke about the importance of connectedness to nature, aiming to use my work as a portal to that and as a prompt.” she explained: “It’s an attempt to subtly convey a message about the importance of conservation and preservation of the natural landscape and as a reminder of the benefits it offers to our health and wellbeing, which I think during the pandemic everyone has tapped into and hopefully now has a greater affinity with it.”
To create pieces that are true to their subject matter, immersion in nature has become a must for Josephine. This integral part of her creative process begins with the close observation of plants and wildflowers in their natural setting, followed by taking photographs, sketching, gathering specimens, and pressing flowers. She has even begun to create a herbarium for reference.
“We have got botanical gardens in Sheffield, which are beautiful, and I cycle through them on the way to my studio. I like to immerse myself, I’m constantly looking for shapes and motifs, and considering how I could interpret them in silver. I start by photographing, and if I can, collecting and gathering, and growing specimens myself. I have also been using my sketchbook a lot recently, to build this collection. I’ll have an idea about the scale of what I’m going to produce in silver, but I won’t really know what I’m going to make, or which specimen I’m going to interpret and how. That’s what’s so endlessly fascinating about silversmithing - a lot of makers work things out at the bench in the making process, it is kind of intuitive.”
By focusing on common species of plants, Josephine is not only hoping to imbue her work with a sense of nostalgia and familiarity, but also to draw attention to beauty that we might fail to notice in our everyday lives; “I tend to use things that are in my locality, and are common - that are found literally at the wayside, in the hedgerow, or during trips to my local garden centre. I’ve used Eucalyptus, Meadow Grass, Lunaria - common name Honesty - Cow Parsley, Cleavers - also known as Goose Grass - Dandelion seed head, a branch and the last piece, which is the most intricate, is a Field Scabious flower.”
This tendency to highlight the aspects of our environment that we may overlook, disregard and take for granted, is also often associated with Ikebana, the Japanese art and philosophy of flower arrangement, an area that Josephine is increasingly venturing into. Although her stems are metal rather than organic, Josephine’s work shares many characteristics with Ikebana-inspired flower arrangements in its minimalism, asymmetry, harmony, tranquillity and use of negative space.
“I’ve become really interested in the whole Japanese philosophy and the Japanese aesthetic. I recently travelled to Manchester and did a one-day Ikebana workshop with a sensei (or teacher) called Junko. I’ve also started to do stylised drawings in my sketchbook. I am hoping to develop this further in future. I think in a sense, I’m trying to apply my home interiors background to my current work.”
As her pieces become larger and more three dimensional - closer to literal recreations of flowers in metal - the way that they are arranged and displayed is also increasingly significant to Josephine: “When I first started making, I was making on a very small scale, but over time, my work is getting larger. It’s like literally building a bouquet or an arrangement. You take one stem and then you add another. I am constantly thinking about which one will compliment or contrast with the last stem I just made. My work isn’t voluminous as I mostly work with linear structures, but I really am interested in the negative space as well, and the composition; the curation of the piece is integral.”
It’s clear that Josephine is at a transformative juncture in her development as a maker. Exploring Ikebana as a source of inspiration and making her pieces larger-scale and increasingly three-dimensional are just some of the ways that she plans to develop her creative practice.
“I’ve also started to develop some surface textures through etching, and have invested in some new equipment to incorporate some chasing and repoussé techniques as well. My aim is to consolidate and apply my knowledge and experience gained as a designer and product developer with my new skills as a designer maker working in metal, to utilise that resource, having come from a surface pattern and textiles background.”
Josephine speaks with such confidence and clarity about the themes, inspiration and direction of her work that it’s easy to forget she is still at a relatively early stage in her career. She has not only successfully transitioned from one creative industry to another, she has also quickly developed a signature style, one that is unique, with heartfelt and authentic roots, and that is already garnering her recognition through programmes like Shine 2021.