Charles Adams and Thomas Widhalm, the founders of Francis Metal Works, weld creativity and artistic skill with a love for the outdoors to make one-of-a-kind stone sculptures. Working out of their Maple Grove studio, the craftsmen create signature pieces from iron and hand-picked Minnesota fieldstone. Both artists bring years of experience from other industries to their work: 40 years as a jeweler for Adams and 33 years as a creative metal worker for Widhalm.
The business partners started Francis Metal Works in 2006, but they had been collaborating well before that point. Before they officially opened, Adams and Widhalm created pieces for their own gardens, and for family and friends.
Their first collaborative creation, in the late ‘90s, was a sculpture of a duck. This was followed by more creatures. The artists have sculpted birds, moose, elk, turtles, rabbits, roosters, pigs and frogs, to name a few. Ranging in price from $20 to $300, their pieces can be found across the country at art fairs, garden shows and in galleries. Two to three new designs are introduced each year, all created with few details. Adams explains, “As minimalists, we try to use the least amount of metal to convey the image and make it recognizable.”
Adams’ and Widhalm’s artistry flourishes with new designs and evolves with new techniques; the pair incorporates things they’ve learned during the last decade to improve the process. They optimized steps like bending the heads of the animals, flattening the beaks of birds and designing new products.
Both artists are passionate about the work, and to them it’s more than just art and design. “It’s really about being outside and working with nature,” Widhalm reflects. “It inspires you from every direction.” Through the stones used in their pieces, nature doesn’t just influence their art—it is their art.
The Minnesota fieldstones Francis Metal Works uses are invaluable to each piece. These rocks are found in farm fields, appearing each spring from below the surface of the ground as a result of cyclical freezing and thawing. Each spring, the guys go into the fields and hand-select stones for future works.
“We discovered that the character of the rock is important to the consumer,” Adams says. He remembers customers at their first art show being mesmerized by the unique features of the rocks.
The stone’s character not only attracts customers, but it charms the artists as well. “Out of thousands and thousands of rocks, the personality jumps out at you,” Widhalm says. Adams and Widhalm wet the fields prior to the rock picking to be able to better see each stone’s color and personality; they look for stones based on character, shape or whatever jumps out at them. “It’s fun how an inanimate object can speak to you,” Widhalm adds.
Gathering stones is an enjoyable part of the process, but the design element is also inspiring and unpredictable. Take the rooster design, for example. First, Adams drew a quick sketch of the tail. Widhalm immediately responded with the head shape. Ideas flowed quickly and the design was complete in one day. It was a similar story for the moose form, which took only two days to complete. These design times starkly contrast the 70 to 80 hours that went into creating the frog.
Regardless of how many hours each sculpture demands, both artists find the work to be deeply fulfilling. “Some things take a long time. Some things happen really quickly and feel like someone else is guiding your hand,” Adams says. “It’s a lot of fun to give birth to a rock.”