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WEARABILITY AND THE POWER OF THE SMALL ART

Press, ArticlesApril Higashi

An Outsider’s View By Sarah Thornton

Originally published December 24, 2018 on Art Jewelry Forum

(April Higashi, owner of Shibumi Gallery, is featured in this article)

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I recently encountered a fascinating subculture, populated mostly by women who make, buy, and sell small objects in a vast range of materials that they sometimes install on their bodies. Called contemporary jewelry or art jewelry (and sometimes artist jewelry), this field has a distinct set of etiquettes and values that makes its wares more thought-provoking, but no less theatrical, than costume jewelry. While many practitioners call themselves “artists,” they shirk the label “sculptor” and, despite its technical accuracy, “wearable sculpture” is rejected for its pretension and insufficient pride in the field’s ornamental origins. To an outsider, this refusal of more “serious” nomenclature is curious. It’s particularly noteworthy when paired with persuasive assertions about the field’s status as art. “Going back into pre-history, the first piece of sculpture was likely jewelry,” says Rebekah Frank, a practitioner who works principally in steel, and the former director of Art Jewelry Forum. “Jewelry has a long history of exuding power and offering protection.”

As someone who studied art history as an undergraduate, earned a PhD in the sociology of culture, and has been writing about the art world for 20 years, I think art jewelry has a leg up on regular old art in at least six important ways.

1. You can touch it! In an increasingly digital world where experiences that once offered a tactile dimension (like reading, shopping, and dating) are being performed online through small screens, art engages the whole body with real texture and scale. Here, art jewelry delivers more, such as the sensation of cold metal, rough stone, and smooth plastic. Indeed, it is a profound pleasure to close overused eyes and literally feel an idea.

2. The body—rather than an inert white wall or dull gray plinth—is the work’s primary platform. “The wearer is your pedestal out in the world and your spokesperson. Often they are better at it than you,” says Emiko Oye, an art jeweler who makes elaborate statements with Lego bricks. She constructs her work on four mannequins named Julian, Lola, Lolita, and Martha, the last of which is named for her grandmother, who used it to make her own clothes. Others execute their work on themselves. “I wear it while I am making it—testing how it lies, adjusting how it hangs. A major part of my process is trying it on,” says Nikki Couppee, an artist best known for her nostalgically feminine Pop assemblages of pink Plexiglas and shells. “Once it’s finished, though, I never wear my own work. It feels uncomfortably self-promoting. But I love to trade and wear other people’s work and see them wear mine.”

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3. Art jewelry offers greater opportunities for social interaction. A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts did a study of why people attend art institutions. The number one reason offered was to socialize with friends or family. Significant art jewelry is invariably a conversation piece, so it invites engagement with others, and inserts the wearer into the classic interpretative dyad between artist and viewer. From this point of view, the essential habitat of art jewelry is not the exhibition, but the cocktail party. I admire the honesty and transparency of this situation. In the opaque art world, the premiere event is an alcohol-lubricated social gathering between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., whose alibi is an exhibition opening.

4. If contemporary art is about spreading startling ideas and opening people’s minds, then why not capitalize on our basic human desire to adorn ourselves and carry talismans? “It’s not about wearing big jewelry. It’s about challenging expectations and telling stories,” declares Mike Holmes, a dealer who ran Velvet da Vinci for 26 years and now curates exhibitions and pop-up stores. “Think of a grandmother’s wedding ring, passed down. Or a political button. Or a war medal, for that matter. These objects give concepts a powerful social life.”

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5. The relatively small size and lower overheads of art jewelry enable greater experimentation. “My interest in jewelry doesn’t come from a love of adorning myself,” says Julia Turner, an artist whose oeuvre includes necklaces made out of oiled walnut and brightly stained maple. “I like jewelry because the scale works for me. I enjoy setting up problems and looking at them from a million points of view. With jewelry, the iterations can be very fast.”

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6. Jewelry artists’ concern for materials is admirably focused and investigative. Its proximity to fine jewelry means that its exploration of the dignity of nonprecious materials often leads to a quiet critique of bling, wealth, and class. “You can’t avoid the history of perceived value, so it is fun to play with preciousness as a theme,” explains Raïssa Bump, a jeweler who often creates knits and quilt patterns in silver. “I like my pieces to shift the wearer in some way, giving them a statement that can be integrated into their self-expression.”

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Strengths often lead to weaknesses. Indeed, much contemporary jewelry is so obsessed with materials that the theme crowds out other artistic concerns and leads to works trapped in a conversation with craft. Moreover, in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, the hippie legacy looms large and, along with it, a predilection for natural materials and a resistance to new technologies that also ushers work back into the craft ghetto.

Ironically, the one term from which my interviewees appear most anxious for distance is craft, which they associate with a lack of aspiration and old-lady amateurism. Perhaps craft’s theoretical antagonism to the contemporary is to blame? “The old craft world is dying and being reborn within the design world,” explains Susan Cummins, one of America’s foremost collectors of art jewelry. “Due to its functionality and materiality, jewelry belongs under the rubric of design.”

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During my studio visits, in which I was generally scintillated, I nonetheless experienced a few disappointments. Given that the body is the main stage of the work, I was initially shocked by the number of practitioners who told me that they “don’t think” about gender and perceive their work as innocently gender-neutral. It then became clear that the women practitioners I was interviewing were making work for women—a fact that was so obvious that it had sunk beneath their cognizance. For example, after saying that she didn’t think about gender, one respondent mused: “The male torso is a nice platform. It would be nice not to think about boobs.”

Clearly, an important challenge for the status of the field is to gain an audience among men. April Higashi, a jeweler who is also the owner of Berkeley’s Shibumi Gallery, one of two art jewelry stores in the Bay Area (the other is De Novo in Palo Alto), says that, outside of wedding rings, only 3% of the pieces she sells are worn by men. “It is hard to get men to even try it on and, if they do, they can’t wait to take it off,” she explains. When she recently did a show of chunkier jewelry for men, the works sold mostly to women.

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To expand the audience for and stature of contemporary jewelry, I think advocates should consider renaming the field. It’s unlikely that the term “jewelry” will cease (anytime soon) to be associated with thoughtless adornment, commercialism, superficiality, and femininity. I’m a lifelong feminist and believe in the battle to elevate the feminine but, for me, “jewelry” is irretrievable, particularly as its cultural associations are dominated by fine jewelry.

I think it’s worth considering the truly gender-neutral and resolutely contemporary term “wearables.” Now that people of all sexes are wearing computers on their wrists and headphones around their neck, adoption of the term could help put the small objects, formerly known as art jewelry, into conversations with a more ambitious set of themes. Although the term “wearable” is being used by the tech sphere, it’s not owned by it. It isn’t too late!

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Wearability is a weird and wonderful concept. Many of my interviewees made sense of it by evoking a woman wearing four-inch heels. Of course, the physicality of the work will always be central, but what if the issue of wearability took a more intellectual turn? What if the first question were: Does she have the energy to put on this piece and talk about it all night? Or, does this object align with his political values and project a better future? As a category, “wearable art” is not pretentious, prissy, trivial, or trinket-like. Most importantly, it’s not oxymoronic. With commanding matter-of-factness and self-respect, it says what it is.


Sarah Thornton is an ethnographer, writer, and public speaker. Formerly the chief writer on contemporary art for The Economist and, before that, a brand planner in an advertising agencyThornton has a BA in art history and a PhD in the sociology of culture. She’s the author of three books: Seven Days in the Art World33 Artists in 3 Acts and Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. She has lived most of her adult life in London, England, but now resides in San Francisco, CA. For more information, see: www.sarah-thornton.com. Photo: Margo Moritz

Consider the Pearl

Articles, EventsApril Higashi
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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.  

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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.

American Craft Conference- Creating A New Craft Culture: Part I

ArticlesApril HigashiComment
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I just returned from Minneapolis from the ACC Conference. I went to take in new ideas, and get a current pulse of the Craft field in hopes this would continue my vision for Shibumi and my studio work. At 41, I am five months pregnant. This trip seemed timely to keep the connection and vision for the future before I get sucked into motherhood. Which by the way I am excited for but I intend to continue my commitment to Craft and that is an evolving process.

The conference was well worth the investment. In general it reminded me that all of us in the "Craft" field are part of a bigger picture. For most of us we have come to this field because we love making. Making is part of our process. And then in that we try to connect the dots on making a living. We have not ended up in this field for the easy money, but for the love of the work, the lifestyle and the connection we have to our creative process, to our hands informing our minds. The commitment is to sharing our process and continually inviting people in to be reminded they can do what they love. I have gathered these reflections from some of the speakers at the conference and will share the most notable insights which I find help in going deeper in my life and my work. I can see that these and many more of the speakers will continue to have a ripple effect in my practice.
 

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Richard Sennett was the key not speaker and his book The Craftsman is currently available. Sennett speaks about the Craftsman being misunderstood, when they are seen only from the perspective of making. His perspective is that manual activities are highly intelligent. Looking at the modern capitalist work society he points out that many business are set up to reward their workers for RESULTS and are not oriented by incentive or quality. People are not valued as much as RESULTS are                                                                                                 valued.

I see his point that the creative process, the asking of why? or following a pathway that may not prove to lead you to results is often not encouraged. And in this environment the great ideas, mistakes and creative thinking have no room to grow. And isn't this happening in many avenues of life? Are we forgetting to wander down a pathway because our to do lists have gotten so long? As Sennett says, "What is wrong with a society that does not allow rewards to people who have a craft mentality and does not reward quality?" He in fact is a believer that the hand informs the head and I do agree. It was good to be reminded of this simple daily practice that most studio artists engage in many times each day.

I've just finished the prologue in The Craftsman and I have to say I think Sennett has an amazing perspective on the benefits of material culture and he expresses it so eloquently. It almost seems obvious after you read his words. He is working on a three-part book series: The Craftsman; explores craftmanship, the skill to make things well, Warriors and Priests addresses the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal, and The Foreigner explores the skill required in making and inhabiting sustainable environments.

Elissa Author shared many examples of the 60's studio artist movement, many of whom were artists from California and the West. What struck a cord with me is that the artists of that era were committed to their artwork and studio practices from the perspective of lifestyle.
 

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George Nakashima states his commitment to INTEGRATE~ LIFE + WORK. I can really relate. I myself have often not had much recreational time as my life is in many respects my work. I even have a musician friend and we joke that we don't know how to recreate. It is because the time and energy we put towards our work entails many of these elements and is very time consuming. Many of my friends and the artists I show in Shibumi who actually make their living at their art, also have these similar lifestyles. The integration of Life and Work I believe continues sometimes not as much as a choice but as a necessity. That is to devote the time to make new work and make a living in the process. I am happy to be reminded                                                                                                                              that it is a choice and this is what I have chosen for my lifestyle.

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The author also sighted Marguerite Wildenhain, a French Bauhaus potter who later moved to the United States. She started the Pond Farm School in Guernville, California, where the students threw pots for 8-9 hours a day and could not take anything with them. They were being shown the relationship to the process and not to hold onto the results.

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M.C. Richards was also sighted, who wrote Centering. I am very familiar with this book, my husband Eric Powell, who's mother is a potter keeps this book by his bedside as a staple. Richards speaks about centering and wholeness. Her belief is that self realization can be found through the craft process.

Author's talk was a reminder that as artists and dealers working to support the craft field, it is a choice and one of the reasons I have chosen this is career is the lifestyle that supports it. I would say all of the artists whom I represent breathe, eat, live and integrate their work into their art and life. I see it is laced into every aspect of their lives. Sometimes I forget this because it takes all my energy some days to keep making a living but as I am reminded it is a choice of life and I am re-empowered to once again connect with this.

I am sharing what to me are a few important reflections from the ACC Conference. You can get more detailed info by Harriette Estelle Berman's blog and Emiko-o reware's blog.

Stay tuned for Part II which will address the younger and older "Craft" generations and how they conflict and complement and are hopefully starting to integrate to make A New Craft Culture...