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Consider the Pearl

April Higashi
Consider-instagram-v2-drpshdw.jpg

Pearls are the only gems that seem to illicit one of two responses from people - an illuminated smile or a disapproving shake of the head.  I have always found it interesting that these gems create such opposing reactions. I hope to provide some thoughtful information which may help turn some of you into pearl appreciators.

Pearls are humankind’s oldest gemstone. Throughout the ages they have inspired myths, legends, superstitions, and even health remedies.

Calling pearls 'gemstones' almost seems wrong, however, they are considered part of a group of gems in the Organics category. This group also includes coral, jet, and amber, but pearls seem to take the crown. There is something about their luster that is seductive, mysterious, deep and alluring. In 1917 Pierre Cartier paid for what is now known as the Cartier Fifth Avenue Mansion in New York City with two strands of ‘natural pearls’ that were valued at a million dollars. It’s rumored that Cleopatra dissolved or crushed a pearl in vinegar and drank it. Pearls have been referenced throughout ancient mythology, folklore, and even biblical scriptures. Amazingly, the oldest-known gem that was worn as jewelry is a piece of pearl that dates back to sometime around 520 B.C. 

In the early 1900’s-1950’s the desired pearls were the perfect, round, white pearls worn as choker-length necklaces or stud earrings. They are often too classic and traditional for most of our clients.  The ideology and image of women of this time also has an influence on how we perceive pearls.

Food writer MFK Fisher’s book Consider the Oyster is a loving tribute to these mollusks in which she includes a ‘recipe’ for making Japanese pearls.  Ingredients required among other things include: 1 healthy spat, 1 mature oyster, an unnamable wound-astringent and a diving girl.  Prep time: 10 years with seven years close supervision and “about a one in twenty chance of owning a marketable pearl”.

With MFK Fisher’s witty recipe illuminating the considerable time, labor and risks involved in making a pearl, it’s no wonder they are revered worldwide.  These beautiful curiosities have always held a mysterious allure for both jewelers and wearers owing to the surface’s subtle glow from the nacre - the crystalline substance that creates its unique iridescent visual effect. 

What seems to draw us to pearls is the beautiful, silky luster of a properly grown pearl. However, with the cost of pearls ranging from expensive to very inexpensive one can easily be confused as to what contributes to their value. What exactly is the difference between a ‘natural’ pearl and a ‘cultured’ pearl? How are pearls made? What are the different kinds of pearls? 

Here is a brief explanation of some of the more common pearls and their attributes, as well as our take on why pearls are so beautiful, and various ways to make them look artful and less traditional.

Photos: Akoya Blue Pearls, Oyster Shells, Tahitian Pearls, South Sea Pearl courtesy of Cultured Pearl Association.

Natural vs Cultured pearls: A brief history and general information

Natural pearls, or those found entirely without human intervention in an oyster or a mussel, are very rare. Your chance of finding a natural pearl in the wild is between about 1 in 12,000 and 1 in 20,000 depending on the location. Even if you were to find one, only a small percentage would be the size, shape, and color desirable for jewelry. Natural pearls are formed when an irritant such as a fragment of shell, a scale, or a parasite becomes lodged inside an oyster or mussel. This foreign matter then gets coated by the mollusk with layer upon layer of nacre, or mother of pearl, which is made of calcium carbonate. 

Prior to the early 1900’s pearls were extremely expensive and only available to royalty and the very wealthy. Then in the early 1900’s Mikimoto Kokichi discovered a technique for stimulating the oyster into producing a pearl. He is basically credited as the father of modern pearl culturing. (Government biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and a carpenter, Tatsuhei Mise, had been granted a patent for a grafting needle for culturing years before.) Although Kokichi applied for a patent to use a different method of grafting he eventually made arrangements to use the Nishikawa and Mise method and the cultured pearl industry expanded quite rapidly. 

By 1935 there were 350 pearl farms in Japan producing 10 million cultured pearls annually. 

Today pearl farming can be found in both freshwater and saltwater in many countries of the world including China, Japan, India, The US, French Polynesia, and Mexico. 

Saltwater pearl farming includes grafting a bed of oysters with a nucleus, typically a bead of mother of pearl shell and a piece of mantle (or the organic part of an oyster). The oysters are then allowed to grow the pearl for 2-6 years. Saltwater or ocean farming produces climate conditions that only oysters can live in. These oysters can produce some of the rarest and largest pearls on the market. 

In freshwater pearl farming, mussels are grafted with only the organic mantle tissue and not a nucleus or mother of pearl bead.  Freshwater mussels are also allowed to grow the pearls for 2-6 years, however freshwater mussels can produce up to 30 pearls per culturing cycle whereas the saltwater oyster always only produces one. Traditionally saltwater pearls are generally more valuable for this reason.  

Pearl farms are required to adhere to strict government fishing guidelines. This ensures the long-term sustainability of the animal and the gem.  Pearl farmers are motivated to keep the waters clean because only oysters and mussels that live in healthy waters will produce pearls. But as with any large industry you should work with galleries and reputable shops that you trust and have researched their suppliers’ practices. 

 

Photos: Anatomy of an Oyster: Pearls a Natural History, Oyster Shells, Tahitian Pearls, courtesy of Cultured Pearl Association.

The Seven Basic Pearl Shapes:

Although the shapes have many variations, these are the basic shapes and their characteristics:

Round: Round pearls are perfectly spherical and the shape most people think of when they think of a pearl. Because of their relative rarity and ‘classic’ nature they are highly desirable. 

Near-round: These pearls are slightly flattened or elongated rather than being a perfect sphere. 

Oval: These pearls are shaped like an oval, narrower at the ends than they are in the center. 

Button: Button pearls are flattened to some degree making them resemble a button or a disk rather than a sphere. These pearls are often used in earrings where the flattened side can be attached to the setting. 

Drop: Drop pearls are pear or teardrop-shaped. The drop can either be ‘long’ or ‘short’ depending on its proportions. 

Semi-baroque: These pearls are slightly irregular in their shape and are not symmetrical.

Baroque: This is a pearl that is both non-symmetrical and range from irregular to extremely irregular in shape. The baroque pearl can be purely abstract in its shape or it can resemble a cross, stick or some other form. 

Circle: A subset of Baroque pearls but as the name suggests they have visible ‘circles’ or ‘rings’ around the diameter of the pearl.  

Pearl_Shapes.jpg

Types of Pearls: some of our favorites

Keshi pearls are small non-nucleated pearls typically formed as by-products of pearl cultivation. A Japanese word also meaning "poppy", it is used in Japanese for all pearls that were grown without a nucleus. Originally keshi pearls referred to those pearls formed when a bead nucleus was rejected.

Mabe pearls are a type of large, usually hemispherical cultured pearl grown on the inside shell of an oyster rather than within the body. Because of it’s shape it is often mounted in jewelry.

Dome of mother-of-pearl is the hard, pearly, iridescent substance forming the inner layer of a mollusk shell.

Baroque pearls are pearls with an irregular non-spherical shape. Shapes can range from minor aberrations to distinctly ovoid, curved, pinch, or lumpy shapes.

Seed pearls are generally defined as a small, natural pearls usually measuring less than 2mm in diameter, although their early definition stated that they must weigh less than quarter of a grain. Seed pearls are formed when a foreign object enters the oyster or when the shell is damaged or compromised.

Baroque Tahitian, Keshi, Loave, Dome pearl jewelry by April Higashi, Kate Eickelberg. More info here.

Luster and Color

A pearl’s beauty lies in its luster; the brilliance, shine and glow of a pearl. The quality of the nacre (and in turn the luster) is affected by a variety of factors such as the cultivation techniques used, the health of the oyster, time of year harvest takes place, temperature variations, pollution, and the type of oyster used to cultivate the pearl. On the high end of luster, the pearls will have intense, sharp, almost mirror-like light reflections and there will be a high contrast between their bright and dark areas. 

Low-luster pearls will be milky and seem more like a piece of chalk rather than a lustrous pearl. There is very little contrast between light and dark areas. 

Pearl color can have three components: body, overtone and orient. The body color is the pearl’s dominant overall color. The overtone is one or more translucent colors that lie over a pearl’s body color. And the orient is a shimmer of iridescent rainbow colors on or just below a pearl’s surface. All pearls display body color, but only some show overtone, orient, or both.

 

Photos: Mixed Pearls , Tahitian Pearls, Akoya Baroque Pearls, Golden South Sea Pearls: courtesy of Cultured Pearl Association.

Pearl jewelry: Our take on how to make the pearl look artful 

Strands of pearls are usually sold to jewelers as 16” - 18” lengths. We find that adding to the length, either by putting two strands together or adding a chain at the back, makes them look less conservative. We also don’t usually ‘graduate’ the pearls, or have all the big ones in the front center gradually decreasing in size towards the back. We mix up the sizes and string them in a more rhythmic and organic nature. We’ve found that a contemporary clasp design or mixing in custom beads set with diamonds visually breaks up in the strand and compliment the pearls. We also love pearls in organic shapes such as the Keshi and Baroque. It takes a good eye to match them and can take hours to do, but after that a simple embellishment can be best. 

Keshi, Baroque Tahitian, Freshwater Pearl Necklaces by April Higashi and Kate Eickelberg. More info here or click on individual pieces.

Matching organic shapes of Keshi and Baroque pearls that have similar luster makes the pearls more interesting to us than the perfect round pearl. Even when we use perfectly matched pearls we usually do something organic and unexpected to accent the beauty of the pearls. 

Blue Baroque Tahitian, Silver Keshi,  Feather Pearl, Large White Baroque, Keshi, Grey Baroque Tahitians, Natural Pearls, Grey Mabe Pearl Earrings by April Higashi and Kate Eickelberg. More info here.

Layering your pearls can add a different dimension to the traditional. And a simple pearl pendant is a beautiful way to own a pearl and put it in the mix. 

Above: Various Artists Layered with other jewelry. Some of the work can be found here.

If you still feel like pearl jewelry is too traditional, try one last category. Art Jewelry offers alternative designs where the pearl is often used as an accent instead of being the main focus. It is about the design, concept, and meaning.

Above: Art Jewelry with pearls: Megan McGaffigan, Niki Uelha, Kiwon Wang, Nina Bocobo, Kate Eickelberg. More info here.

Caring for your Pearls

Pearls are resilient and are meant to be worn, however, since pearls are organic gemstones they need slightly different care than non-organic gemstones like diamonds or emeralds. The golden rule we tell our clients is “last on and first off”.

Pearls should not be worn when cosmetics, hairspray, fragrances, or sunscreen are applied. These products, even if they are natural or mineral based, can affect the luster of pearls. 

Pearls should not be worn when excessive perspiration will occur, such as during work-outs.

Pearls should be stored in a cotton cloth bag and kept away from heat sources such as heating vents or fireplaces. Pearls should not be stored in plastic due to the chemicals plastic emits and the fact that pearls need air circulation so they don’t dry out.

Shibumi Project: Ageless

Shibumi ProjectApril HigashiComment

If one could describe a person as ageless, it would be Fredrica .  Her dear friends call her Fred but I have adopted my own nickname for her, “Fd”, pronounced F.D.   As I near my next decade in life, I am thinking more and more about aging.   And I’ve realized that I hope I too might be thought of as ‘ageless’ – a quality that imbues Fred with endless vitality and grace.


Fred is one of the loveliest clients I’ve ever had and one who I now have the privilege of calling a friend.  She is the only client who greets all my staff by name, brings chocolates or small gifts for them and pushes her way to the back studio to meet the goldsmiths who make her custom pieces.  Even my son Ando asks, "Mom when are we having drinks with Fred again?"  He feels included with his Shirley Temple sitting next to our Manhattans and tells her his stories as she intently listens.  She relates to everyone in a dear and playful way.  People find it impossible not to gravitate to her, wanting to know more about this magnetic woman who you can’t help but feel graces your presence.

Her stylish clothes and layers of ever changing jewelry bob and jounce about as she talks. She gets excited when we are designing a custom piece with her and even does a little jig if we nail an idea she likes.  She has an amazing eye and knows how to wear her elegant, yet down-to-earth style any time, anywhere.  She doesn’t need extra diamond ‘sprinkles’ to justify paying for a beautifully subtle and meticulously crafted piece.  She understands.


I still remember the day, maybe 10 years ago, when she first walked into Shibumi Gallery.

Years before, at a gallery in San Francisco, Fred had purchased one of the first gold rings I’d ever made.  In the box with the ring was included a card with my name.  She wore and loved the ring for years before deciding to try and seek out the artist whose name had been written on that card.

With the help of the internet, Fredrica came to Shibumi Gallery to find me.

This past Christmas Fredrica dropped by a holiday gift for my son and me. With it, she included the original card with my name on it from her first ring purchase so many years before.   That card had brought us together or I should actually say it was the ring.   And since that first meeting, we have piled many more rings on her fingers.  I once even asked her, ‘How many rings does a girl need??” She told me that wasn’t a very good sales technique.  But I now know the answer to the question - an infinity of rings! 

Jewelry makes Fred happy and you know what, she wears it all.   She is passionate about beauty and craftsmanship.  Every time I see her she has layered her pieces in the most unique ways with old and new stacked together.  She’ll even take jewelry apart, exchange chains or remove bits that don’t work for her.  This woman knows herself.  She also does not get caught up in the preciousness of jewelry.  Even when she alters one of my own pieces I never feel disrespected. In fact, quite the opposite – I feel inspired by her spirit and vision. I can honestly say she is one of my muses.  When I make things I often think, would Fd wear this?   If the answer is yes then I’m pretty certain it’s a good piece. 

I wasn’t sure I should disclose Fred’s age and asked her what she thought.  As I turned up to her beautiful home last fall for this Shibumi Project photo shoot, she asked me if she could wear this shirt; she pulled it out and it was completely transparent on one side.  This is Fredrica- she’s 63!  

I love Fd, her spirit, her style and her generous and kind nature. I feel so lucky she walked through the doors at Shibumi Gallery looking for me.  If you were to stumble into the gallery on a day she is there and we are designing and playing with jewelry, you’d think I have the best job in the world. And some days with Fd I would have to agree.  It’s truly lovely and inspiring to have women out there like Fred, because then you know it is possible to be ageless.


Saturday, April 7th, 2018, Fredrica will be doing a “Layering Your Jewelry" workshop at Shibumi Gallery from 4-7pm.  Come by for wine and nibbles and to meet her and play with us.  Feel free to bring some of your own pieces that you love.  

If you can’t come by I hope this post might inspire not only new ways to wear and layer your pieces, but also inspire us to be ourselves and afford ourselves the things that truly make us happy and help keep us ageless.

photos by Cynthia E. Wood

2018: Shibumi is 13!

April HigashiComment
  Inspiration from a winter trip to The Victorian Albert Museum in London

Inspiration from a winter trip to The Victorian Albert Museum in London

Please take 20% off any one item this month to thank you for your patronage.  (*wedding rings, custom and some one of a kind pieces are not valid)

May the light in 2018 be victorious over obstacles and bring you many good things.  Wishing you all a creative 2018 full of some good change!

Warmest regards,
April
+
the Shibumi team

As 2017 ended, I had a poignant conversation with a mother and daughter who are both clients. We were deep in conversation about the world and a life of making. The daughter was a client, but also an up-an-coming artist who just started selling her work. She made a comment as she walked out the door with her mother that has stuck with me. She told me, “You aren’t a brand, April. You are a person and that’s why we come here!”

As the new year begins, I think about the vision of Shibumi and where I want it to go. While Shibumi stands for subtle beauty, artistic expression, and quality work we are not afraid to express ourselves outside our identity, both in the work we make and the shows we put on. We feel that this expression will become our evolving identity and bring fresh things. 

I was reminded by this conversation to always be yourself, be authentic, and that making and showing new work provides a new path forward. We also value the personal, reflective interactions we have with all of you. 

Thank you for your support. We hope to make some exciting changes in this new year and look forward with sharing them with you. 

Here is a little bit about my team: (clockwise from top left)

Shibumi+Team+2018.jpg

April Higashi. Owner; gallerist, designer, maker, boss lady, Shibumi: 2005.

Ben Faryna. Lead Goldsmith; maker, mindreader, deep thinker, aesthetic perfecter, 2011.

Kate Eickelberg. Gallery Assistant; costing + custom go-to, maker, observer, grammar enthusiast, 2012.

Aya Osada. Bookkeeper; life straightener, maker of patterns, parrot owner, 2015.

Nina Bocobo. Assistant Goldsmith; deep learner, on-call staff model, snack coordinator, maker, organic object collector, 2016.

Claudia Alleyne. Gallery Manager; right hand gal, assists in everything, custom design, maker, lover of African anything, 2016.

Karen Lee.  Identity Builder; fact checker, editor, designer, gardener extraordinaire, 2004. 

Trevi Pendro. Gallery Assistant; fellow happa, newest addition in the gallery, social media coordinator, staff photographer, maker, tattoo addict, 2017.

Shibumi Project: New Life

Shibumi ProjectApril HigashiComment
 Each marriage and engagement has a unique story comprised of many moments and emotions.  For the couple in this story happiness, joy, heartbreak, vulnerability, sorrow, and support are the words that come to mind as I think of theirs.  I have the privilege to see and hear about many private moments when working with couples on their rings. When I first started making wedding and commitment rings, I decided to have a beautiful case made where couples could meet. I created a case with cantilevered weights where they can stand, peruse the rings, and have conversations about what they envision and want to share.   At this case I learn so much more about the couples than simply their aesthetics for jewelry. I learn about those special moments in their relationship, how they met and most importantly I see the dynamic between them as they select what they want to represent their story.    It was in front of this case that I met Bree and Ray, a lovely couple in their thirties who carefully and thoughtfully selected their rings together. Bree was a writer. Ray did many things, one of which was teach yoga. We laughed as Ray would try on a ring and go into downward dog to make sure it was comfortable enough to wear while teaching. They were a beautiful couple and they fit together nicely. A few years later they stopped by the gallery, now married, and he bought her a green sapphire ring. He said to her. "I want every finger of yours to have a ring from April for all our good memories over the years.” I learned they were trying to have a baby.   Like life, this story doesn’t have all happy moments, but it is a story about the strength and support it takes to move through both good and bad times. Sometime later I ran into Bree. We were both trying on clothes in a store. We talked over the dressing room walls and she told me that they were trying to adopt a child. I had shared my journey to have my son, which took six years and included at one point, trying to adopt. I wished her well and let her know I was thinking of her. I knew how agonizing the process was of trying to get pregnant and then trying to adopt. She mentioned that they were well and I went on my way happy to have seen her.  The story skips ahead to a dear friend of Ray’s emailing me to ask if I could size a ring Ray had bought for him. He was very forlorn at the appointment and as we talked I learned that Ray had cancer. He was not going to make it and he had gifted him the ring for being by his side through it all.  Bree contacted me in the next year and said she was going to be in the Bay Area. She told me Ray had passed and she wanted to do something with their wedding rings. Understandably, she couldn’t bring herself to wear hers anymore. I told her to bring them in and I’d be happy to see her. We chatted a bit more by email. I am not a person who avoids asking about hard subjects. I was curious how she was and wanted to know about what had happened in their adoption process. I learned that not only did she have to endure her young husbands’ death, but that only months before his diagnosis their adoption had come through. A little boy. However, sadly on the twelfth day of his being with them the birth mother decided to take him back. In California, a birth mother has thirty days before she officially relinquishes her rights.      As you can imagine it was heartbreaking for them both. And only months after this, they learned of Ray’s terminal illness. I felt for her. I had truly felt the sweetness of their relationship and just how much he loved her.    I came up with the idea to melt all three of their wedding rings together, their wedding bands and her engagement ring. We reoriented the diamond in a new direction and sized it for a new finger. A ‘new life’ ring. It was a beautiful symbol of the love and memories she had in her marriage and yet the need to move forward. During her appointment we cried and hugged.  The whole process touched me - I have never heard a story so poignant.   Jewelry is imbued with symbolism, beauty and strength. While Ray and Bree’s story is heartbreaking, I keep thinking of the moments they got to share and how they were there for each other.  Often marriages end in divorce. This one did not. They were separated while they still wanted to be together and share a life. Not everyone gets to experience true love as they did. This story is a tribute to them both.    When I meet couples about to marry I see all their hopes and dreams for a happy future. They giggle, they fight and kiss in front of me. There is so more than meets the eye to a relationship, so much that doesn’t often get talked about. Thank you for sharing your life and your deeply personal moments. It was and continues to be a great honor to be a witness and make such symbolic pieces for you to reflect on. I love that my work provides the opportunity to peripherally share in your unions. And I love that I can help mark these moving moments with something beautiful.  With risking to sound cliche, may this be a reminder to all of us to be in the moment with those we love.  ---In honor of Ray and Bree.   photos by Cynthia E. Wood

Each marriage and engagement has a unique story comprised of many moments and emotions.

For the couple in this story happiness, joy, heartbreak, vulnerability, sorrow, and support are the words that come to mind as I think of theirs.

I have the privilege to see and hear about many private moments when working with couples on their rings. When I first started making wedding and commitment rings, I decided to have a beautiful case made where couples could meet. I created a case with cantilevered weights where they can stand, peruse the rings, and have conversations about what they envision and want to share. 

At this case I learn so much more about the couples than simply their aesthetics for jewelry. I learn about those special moments in their relationship, how they met and most importantly I see the dynamic between them as they select what they want to represent their story.  

It was in front of this case that I met Bree and Ray, a lovely couple in their thirties who carefully and thoughtfully selected their rings together. Bree was a writer. Ray did many things, one of which was teach yoga. We laughed as Ray would try on a ring and go into downward dog to make sure it was comfortable enough to wear while teaching. They were a beautiful couple and they fit together nicely. A few years later they stopped by the gallery, now married, and he bought her a green sapphire ring. He said to her. "I want every finger of yours to have a ring from April for all our good memories over the years.” I learned they were trying to have a baby. 

Like life, this story doesn’t have all happy moments, but it is a story about the strength and support it takes to move through both good and bad times. Sometime later I ran into Bree. We were both trying on clothes in a store. We talked over the dressing room walls and she told me that they were trying to adopt a child. I had shared my journey to have my son, which took six years and included at one point, trying to adopt. I wished her well and let her know I was thinking of her. I knew how agonizing the process was of trying to get pregnant and then trying to adopt. She mentioned that they were well and I went on my way happy to have seen her.

The story skips ahead to a dear friend of Ray’s emailing me to ask if I could size a ring Ray had bought for him. He was very forlorn at the appointment and as we talked I learned that Ray had cancer. He was not going to make it and he had gifted him the ring for being by his side through it all.

Bree contacted me in the next year and said she was going to be in the Bay Area. She told me Ray had passed and she wanted to do something with their wedding rings. Understandably, she couldn’t bring herself to wear hers anymore. I told her to bring them in and I’d be happy to see her. We chatted a bit more by email. I am not a person who avoids asking about hard subjects. I was curious how she was and wanted to know about what had happened in their adoption process. I learned that not only did she have to endure her young husbands’ death, but that only months before his diagnosis their adoption had come through. A little boy. However, sadly on the twelfth day of his being with them the birth mother decided to take him back. In California, a birth mother has thirty days before she officially relinquishes her rights.    

As you can imagine it was heartbreaking for them both. And only months after this, they learned of Ray’s terminal illness. I felt for her. I had truly felt the sweetness of their relationship and just how much he loved her.  

I came up with the idea to melt all three of their wedding rings together, their wedding bands and her engagement ring. We reoriented the diamond in a new direction and sized it for a new finger. A ‘new life’ ring. It was a beautiful symbol of the love and memories she had in her marriage and yet the need to move forward. During her appointment we cried and hugged.  The whole process touched me - I have never heard a story so poignant. 

Jewelry is imbued with symbolism, beauty and strength. While Ray and Bree’s story is heartbreaking, I keep thinking of the moments they got to share and how they were there for each other.

Often marriages end in divorce. This one did not. They were separated while they still wanted to be together and share a life. Not everyone gets to experience true love as they did. This story is a tribute to them both.  

When I meet couples about to marry I see all their hopes and dreams for a happy future. They giggle, they fight and kiss in front of me. There is so more than meets the eye to a relationship, so much that doesn’t often get talked about. Thank you for sharing your life and your deeply personal moments. It was and continues to be a great honor to be a witness and make such symbolic pieces for you to reflect on. I love that my work provides the opportunity to peripherally share in your unions. And I love that I can help mark these moving moments with something beautiful.

With risking to sound cliche, may this be a reminder to all of us to be in the moment with those we love.

---In honor of Ray and Bree.

photos by Cynthia E. Wood

Footnotes from Havana

InspirationApril HigashiComment

I travel for inspiration, perspective and to find a new understanding that will help make my world bigger.  After the devastating US election, a busy holiday season and trying to be a decent parent, I was depleted by the end of December. I have always found a break is the best way to reset my life, discover greater empathy and restore my creativity.  

While a truly great journey will leave you feeling three years younger, and two years wiser, a difficult border crossing will reveal your true character. Difficult travel is a reflection of our true selves, whether you’re curious, in survival mode, a bigot or open minded.
— Studio D / Field Notes

Havana was a trip which expanded my world to include an understanding of a simple Cuban beauty and remind me of the circumstances we are born into. The pinhole of Cuban culture I witnessed in only a week was a mixture of socialism, history, music, dance, modernist architecture, art, tobacco, island time and of course Cuban flair.  While I have traveled internationally a fair amount, it had been awhile since I had actual culture shock upon arrival in a country.  Between the internet and international trade, one can often find the comforts of home. This is not the case yet in Cuba.  There are no traces of the US post 1959.  The old classic cars are the only reminders of the U.S.  since Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and set in place the socialist government. Socialism gives people housing, heath care, education and subsidized food, yet many people still live in poverty.  

While the government is starting to restore the historical center of the Habana Vieja to attract tourism, walk just a few streets away from the historic squares and you see how run down it is. The Cuban people don't own their buildings, only the apartments within them. Some families choose to paint the outsides but many don’t. That means you may see the bottom half of a building painted and the top crumbling because they are owned by two families. While walking on the Prado, a promenade for pedestrians to stroll, our guide Juan explained that only recently are the people to be able to buy property.  Before, they came to the Prado with details of their property and then traded dwellings amongst themselves when they needed to move.  He also showed us his food card which the Cubans use to purchase food at special markets and bodegas. Rations are reviewed monthly and they can pick up the basic food needs: 5 eggs, meat, beans, rice, milk, etc.  The rationed allotment is free and if you need more you can purchase it at a subsidized price. 

Walking and driving through Habana Vieja you see small snippets of the Cuban life. Their doors are open and their lives often spill out onto the streets. Through my walkabouts, I saw people dancing together or practicing solo in small rooms with techno and traditional Afro-Cuban music blaring - often with the TV still on. In a small living room children played with dolls. A man sat at his entrance, selling four little bags of macaroni pasta and a small pile of eggs. Some people sat quietly on their front step, others were talking with friends or neighbors. Teen girls whispered about boys. I spied a tiny tree with tinsel in a front room and a family enjoying a meal in back. There were entrances and tall staircases with electrical wiring that looked alarmingly unsafe. 

There were small logos on doors for new businesses popping up. It wasn’t until the end of Fidel’s rule he allowed entrepreneurial self-employment. There are now small gyms, dancing schools, home art galleries and record stores to name a few.

There is no internet (unless you find a wi-fi spot, which you’ll know instantly by the many young folks milling about with their phones or go to a tourist hotel) so people still interact and socialize.

Iliana our hotel host said it herself, "Cubans are loud people. Even if there are right here,”--- pointing a foot away from her--- "we speak loudly." They talk at great length even over simple things like directions. Drivers do not pull out maps or phones when they need directions; they simply yell over to the next car or pull to the side to ask someone standing on the street. The conversations can go on for quite some time. It reminded me of how isolated and independent we have become with information fingertips. I thought about how much are we missing when we turn to our computers or phones and overlook the people we are right next to.

Something has definitely been lost in our culture.

It was an expansive trip for me. I learned so much about The Cuban Revolution, about Amercia’s embargo on Cuba and the mix of emotions and tension it has created. I saw a country with hope that things are getting better but are still hard when faced with the reality that they can not easily leave. 

Being an entrepreneur myself, I couldn’t help but notice how businesses run in Cuba.

There was a dark grey Art Nouveaux building near the Prado that held a perfumery. I had big expectations - the thought of Cuban perfume seemed so exotic. However, upon entering this beautiful building the perfumes were not original scents but many of the bigger European brands seen anywhere else in the world. They were stacked in their boxes and locked up in two cages. Very unapproachable. Two nicely dressed sales people stood at the back behind an empty counter that would have easily been set up for sampling and spontaneous tourist purchases.

I wasn’t sure I was aligned with the aesthetics in Cuba before I left for my trip.  However after a week of walking through the city, which I can only describes as a shade brighter than power pink, mint green and sky blue, the pallette made complete sense and seemed perfect and beautiful. Women dressed in bright colors, neon even, skirts that fit so with such body contouring I was impressed that they were so comfortable in their bodies. I saw a lot of men in black and white patterns with brightly colored accents. Red shoes were very popular as were distressed jeans on both sexes.  The accessories on one woman were a hot pink belt and matching pumps which made me recoil at first. But when I saw her dancing rumba with her partner at the Casa de la Musica and the way she moved her hips to the beat, I suddenly thought her choice of attire looked lovely and tasteful and I wanted to be her. She later returned to her group of friends with a big ice bucket on the table with a large bottle of rum and poured some in her glass with the Cuban equivalent to coca-cola.

The art of every culture is always a big draw for me. One day I had a big dose of Cuban art.  Going from Miramar to Playa, areas with points of interest far apart from one another, you can hire a cab for $25 an hour and they will wait as you enjoy each stop. We were taken to an alley with many murals, El Callejón de Hamel by Cuban muralist Salvador González. Besides his murals there is outsider art including bathtubs as benches to rest on and rough plasma cut metal and found object sculptures. The alley is said to have dancing (Rumba) on Sundays.

El Callejón de Hamel by Cuban muralist Salvador González

I’d wished we’d put in more effort to architectural points of interest. We had hoped to see the architecture of the ISA (the art school). However we could not get in without an appointment.  But the brick domes and organic arches looked very interesting as we peered over the fence. Driving on El Malecón we passed Parque José Martí Stadium an abandoned stadium built in the 1940’s. Architecturally interesting with it’s faded colored benches and shell-like arches, I have had dreams about it since I have been back and have looked up further images and information to ponder.

There are two artists in particular I took note of.  The first is Kcho, an internationally recognized artist who became well known in his 20’s and has shared his success with the community by opening up his studio and compound to all. His complex is in walking distance of ISA. You are supposed to make an appointment in advance, but we got lucky stopping by and joined another tour already underway. The complex has a gallery where he shows guest artists and a working warehouse/studio for himself, which is the most interesting.   He also shares the space with his 18 year old son, who is in the arts. Outside are more works in progress, outdoor sculptures and public artworks. The piece that pretty much describes what some of the more outright Cuban people think of American was a tall tower of luggage with the American flag draped over the top titled "I don’t want anything from you.”  There is also a small theater and computer lab. Through a sponsorship with Google it is the one place in Havana with free internet. 

The second artist of note is Casa Estudio Jose Fuster (Jamanita).  This tile artist has made a museum that is definitely worth seeing. Not only has he created an endless tile mosaic world of sculptures and murals that has totally transformed his own property, he also extends his work into the neighborhood, neighbors’ houses, alley walls, bus stop, and practically any available surface.

For me, travel is not about seeing things that align perfectly with who I believe I am. I think I travel because it shows me where I am limited. I have to say the pollution from leaded gas was hard to breath in and the food was a little underwhelming.  But even with this I had some notable adventures.

Imagine the thought of planning a peaceful trip to the countryside of Viñales to escape the pollution and crowds only to find your driver waiting for you with a Lada - a Russian car from the days when Russians support was integral to Cuba (1959-1991).  Ladas have notoriously poor exhaust systems (which fill the backseats with fumes), no seat belts and our driver had to pull over several times for roadside repairs and adjustments.

Lunches sometimes felt a bit like torture as we had to wait up to 2 1/2 hours for the food to arrive. What do you talk about with no iPhone to distract you? How do you keep up conversation? You don’t. You let the pauses and many moments of stillness be there. You wait patiently and enjoy the moist air awhile you relax. And when your food finally arrives and it expectations let you down, you eat every bit and appreciate the way you feel nourished and have regained some energy for the next adventure. 

I’m happy to share my favorite finds or an itinerary that I think would be helpful for anyone thinking of visiting Cuba. But I suggest instead to simply be present and watch. Cuba is a beautiful culture so different that ours. Once I slowed down and realized I was not looking for big a-ha moments, I began to appreciate it much more. I feel lucky to have visited. A Socialist government I had never experienced. If I were to go back I would go with a better camera, take a dance class, do a little more research on the architecture and food, and hopefully know some Spanish. 

I don’t know how quickly travel in Cuba will change but, email me if you would like my highlights of my week in Havana. I have a detailed list. As a woman I should say I did not travel alone and was with a man, but found the people either friendly or indifferent and I felt safe in all areas we ventured. 

I am never sure how I will process these images and cultures into my work but I know for one thing it changes me and refreshes my world.