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  • Illustration: Dan WIlliams

The Future Lab: Sara O’Hana

Make:Shift brings together an extraordinary group of makers, thinkers and scientists

In the current issue of Crafts, we met some of them for a taste of what to expect. 

Perhaps best known for her work in bringing the worlds of craft and engineering closer together, Sarah O’Hana describes herself as a ‘curator’, but not necessarily of objects. ‘What I’m good at is joining people and ideas and things together,’ she says. ‘It’s about connecting the dots.’

Following a Jewellery and Silversmithing BA (Hons) and a 25-year career spanning her own practice as well as teaching, she embarked on a doctorate, aged 50, in the laser processing of titanium at the University of Manchester in 2005. Laser processing was relatively new to the art world at the time, but what made her project unique was that she carried it out within the university’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering. ‘The project was innovative because it attempted to build a bridge between the creative industries and science and engineering,’ says O’Hana, ‘but also because it brought together the vocational focus of further education and the academic approach of higher education.’

To illustrate just how different these worlds were, she tells a story about testing a carbon dioxide (CO2) laser on titanium to see which parameters would result in which oxidisation colours: ‘A physicist experimental officer had suggested we use graphite to maximise the conduction of power from the laser to the titanium,’ she says. ‘It resulted in too much power being delivered, so the titanium surface turned black, as if burnt, instead of creating a coloured oxide. Just as the officer was writing it off as a disaster, the artists were planning how to use this newly discovered effect in their work.’

Taking on the impossible?

Coming from such a strong art background – O’Hana studied at Loughborough University School of Art and Design – she initially wondered if there were some dots that just couldn’t be connected. ‘The project was carried out full-time in an engineering research centre, which meant being there every day. It was so different to the environment I had come from and I found it very alienating to begin with,’ she says. ‘I have always been quite persistent, but I did wonder if I had taken on the impossible! Happily, I soon found some allies.’

Her persistence paid off. ‘I had to find strategies to engage the scientists,’ she says, and organised presentations from other contemporary artists using lasers, exhibitions of her work in progress and even an international jewellery conference to which she invited the engineering staff to speak.

Creative collaboration

But it wasn’t just about drawing the science department into her world; it was also about understanding theirs. ‘I avoided science and maths at school – I struggled with what I saw as a lack of creativity,’ she says. Attending science and engineering seminars at Manchester University changed her mind. ‘It took the PhD for me to realise how wrong I had been – great scientists are often great precisely because of their creativity.’ She now credits some of those scientists as fundamental to the success of the project.

One such scientist was stem-cell researcher Leslie Turner, with whom O’Hana collaborated to make jewellery inspired by photographs Turner was taking through a microscope. The International Journal of the Humanities published a paper about the project, which O’Hana was subsequently asked to present at a conference in Spain.

Obra II, Obra III, Obra iV brooches, Sara O'Hana, 2016, silver, reclaimed wood, stainless steel. Photo: Sara O'Hana

Following her PhD she lead the BA (Hons) Jewellery and Object course at the University of Lincoln, where she laid the ground for a ‘maker lab’ by opening the jewellery workshops to students, and oversaw a doctorate on 3D printing from both a jewellery and engineering perspective. Later, she curated Jewellery and Object at the Aram gallery, in Palma, Mallorca.

What’s next for this connector of dots? ‘There are so many problems in the world. I would like to get involved with solving some of them. Artists can really help bring ideas into the public awareness – and that means being less introspective and more available for the greater good.’

Sarah O’Hana will discuss ‘Digital Technologies in Craft Education’ with Drummond Masterton, 5-5.30pm, Thursday 10 November.

Make:Shift is at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester m3 4fp. 

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