11 / 16 / 2016
Shibumi Gallery, Berkeley, California, USA
By Susan Cummins
I have known April Higashi for many years and—full disclosure—she worked for me when I owned a gallery for a number of years. I think April is the ideal model for the new younger jewelers who find a way to make life work for them so they can support themselves in the world and still live a creative life. I am amazed by her talent and the creative attitude she has toward all aspects of her life. So I was delighted to be able to interview her. See what you think.
Susan Cummins: I know you have pursued many different projects in your career. Can you talk about a few of them and describe your educational background?
April Higashi: Lately I have been thinking a lot of my career path: where I’ve been and, now that I’m mid-career, where I’d like to end up. I’ve learned so much with each project I’ve undertaken along the way.
My educational background is in textiles, fashion, and fine art. I wasn’t satisfied with my education so I sought out experiences in the working world. It was these experiences that led me to jewelry making and eventually starting my own gallery.
I first started working in the fashion industry for both Nini Bambini and Esprit de Corp. One was a small company, the other a large corporation. I learned I wasn’t a corporate climber and preferred working on the big picture ideas rather than specializing.
When I was 25 and taking my first jewelry class at San Francisco City College, with Jack da Silva, I naively started my own jewelry business with a partner. While my business partner was good at getting her foot in the door to show our work, I discovered I was really good at problem solving. Our second order, for Banana Republic, was an order for 6,000+ pieces and required me to take all kinds of risks in order to figure out how to get it filled. I also discovered I had the courage to take on something like this, as well as new challenges.
When we closed the business it had over 300 accounts and had supported us for more than six years.
While I loved working at the bench, I was not the sort of jeweler who could spend every day there. So I always pursued other part-time work until I started Shibumi Gallery.
These work experiences were essential to my education.
From 2001 to 2004, I taught at CCAC and learned I was very good at editing and assessing people’s strengths and weaknesses. I also worked designing and creating displays for an LA showroom. This not only gave me great display practice but I also learned how to put different lines together. For a few years, I managed Lilith Clothing, which taught me I could assess what looked good on people and gain their confidence with honest feedback.
Later, I became art director for the Jerry Garcia Estate, which taught me how to manage a creative team.
I also worked for the enamel artist June Schwarcz, which deepened my artistic voice, and with you, at Susan Cummins Gallery, which I’ll discuss in greater detail below.
What inspired you to start a gallery? How long have you been doing it?
April Higashi: While working at the Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley, I helped put together vignettes of jewelry and art for a show titled Jewelry and Objects. Something just clicked. I realized that, besides being at the bench, I loved putting diverse things together in creative and unexpected ways.
You, one of your artists, Dominic Di Mare, and June Schwarcz were all very complimentary of my aesthetic, and this validation gave me the encouragement and confidence to pursue my own personal vision.
I had continued making jewelry all along while I held these other jobs. When my art director position was ending, my now ex-husband and I found a live/work building that had a commercial space. I had been working on my jewelry for over 10 years and knew that it was time to do what I had come to realize I wanted to do—start a gallery. I had clientele that knew me. I had met many artists along the way.
My first show was a small group show, and within a month of opening, I was able to support myself. It seemed like a miracle. But I see now that all my diverse experiences had been preparing me to do this for years. The gallery is currently going on its twelfth year
You are one among a large number of galleries internationally that have been founded by jewelers. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think that this occurs with any other art forms. Why do you think jewelers in particular have been so entrepreneurial?
April Higashi: That is a really good question. Why jewelers in general are entrepreneurial and why I personally am entrepreneurial may have two different answers.
In general, to get started in the jewelry world, many of us participate in gallery shows. So having one’s own gallery makes sense. Because jewelry is so personal, and often requires custom work or modifications, it can be easier to deal with clients directly. And it’s difficult to make it financially as a jeweler if you only do wholesale. Getting full retail for some work can make the difference between being profitable or not.
What led me, personally, to start a gallery was my love for displaying, and the enormous satisfaction I get when creating beautiful environments and connecting people with interesting pieces. And I’ve always been able to be both creative and pragmatic. I think that, mixed with being willing to take small risks and being honest and professional, has helped me earn the following and trust of my clients.
What advantage do you think being an artist gives you in the course of running a gallery? What are the challenges that come with being on both sides of the fence?
April Higashi: I know firsthand how much an artist is investing both time-wise and financially when they show at my gallery. When an artist is given a space to show, along with a deadline, their talent becomes focused and positive things happen.
I have created two jobs for myself, conceptualizing new work and curating shows, so time and prioritizing are my greatest challenges. I have to manage a team of eight, and finding good staff can be very challenging, especially in this economy. On top of that, I am the mother of a 6 ½-year-old, which comes with a whole set of other challenges.
Now that you are established and solidly a mid-career artist, how do you continue to challenge yourself?
April Higashi: When I think of ways to challenge myself, I always make sure it’s something I can take on while still keeping my life in balance. I try to pick one project that challenges me to learn something new or try something I have never done. This can be learning a technique or designing in a new metal. Currently the studio is learning to cast organic material. For the gallery, I am starting to think up designs for a beautiful new display case.
I think longer-term I’d love to find some sort of partner and conceive of an independent retail space. My live-work space has been great while being a mom and running a business, but I’d like to see how a space could maintain itself without having to be there all the time. I’m really interested in collaborating. I find bringing together creative ideas with interesting people very exciting. So that idea is in the incubator.
Please describe your space and the environment you live in.
April Higashi: My building is in West Berkeley, in an area with mixed-use zoning. There are artists, wineries, cement factories, beer brewers, and loud trains amongst residential housing. It’s a unique mix.
My building is a two-unit condo built with some of the ideas of barn architecture. The building has three floors. The bottom floor has a 500-square-foot space that is divided between the gallery, the studio, and a design workspace I share with my son. This area also doubles as an event and opening space. There are large double glass doors that open onto a huge backyard with bamboo and sculptures. I also have a guest room downstairs that I rent on occasion or use when artists come for a show.
I live upstairs with my son. It’s a large space with an open floor plan. There is a little room, formerly a deck, which we converted into my son’s bedroom. I have a small nest of a room upstairs which is my bedroom.
It’s a unique live/work space. I feel like each floor represents different parts of my life: work, live, sleep.
What does a typical day look like for you? How do you balance making your own work with selling the work of others in the gallery?
April Higashi: I’ve set up a schedule where I work full days Wednesday to Saturday. On Mondays I work a half-day with my bookkeeper and set up my team for the week. Then I pick up my son early to spend time together. Tuesday is my mental health day, which usually involves a run, and things like going to a museum. If it’s work related, it’s something fun like visiting a gallery or having lunch with an artist or client.
On the days I work full time at the gallery, I start by setting up my day with texts or emails to make sure my team knows the week’s priorities and everyone has what they need. I personally may go for a run, or out to coffee, and do some social media stuff. Then I head in and work on custom design, new pieces, special projects, and meeting clients. By 5:00 it’s time to pick up my son, so the day goes by quickly.
During a show and the weeks following it, the artist I’m showing becomes my priority. I contact clients who I think would connect with the artist’s work and make sure the work is given exposure whenever possible. I like to try to give each artist a nice check at the end of the show.
I love the way the gallery changes with each new show. It’s so much more dynamic than only showing my own work. I learn a lot from showing other artists, and I encourage my clients to mix different artist’s work. Clients seem to appreciate that.
How would you describe what you show? How do you select the artists you represent, and what does “representing” look like?
April Higashi: I like work that is well crafted; my artists have a background as makers, not only as designers. It feels like my taste navigates to organic but refined. I have a range of work that is made with alternative materials to fine jewelry. I have a base of artists I show regularly. But I reach out to new artists or when I see an artist’s work evolving in an interesting direction. I have only found one artist that I’ve shown through their soliciting me by email.
Also, I’ve started showing artists who don’t necessarily have work regularly in my gallery. I like the way it creates new interest and makes things fresh. Their work may be in the gallery for two to three months, and then you’ll never see it there, or have to follow the artist directly.
Who are the artists you have been successful showing?
April Higashi: By success, I’m guessing you mean sales. Last year I had a great show with Christina Odegard. She is so talented but doesn’t show with many people, so her work had not been seen much. I do well with Karen Gilbert, who is always evolving. Again, she doesn’t do many shows but uses her shows at my gallery to experiment with new ideas. Julia Turner’s work sells well. She is good at designing under a price point of $200 and uses a lot of discerning color in her work. I’ve also had great fine jewelry shows with Polly Wales and Jo Hayes Ward.
What do you love about representing artists? What do you hate about it?
April Higashi: I love the inflow of new ideas, forms, and the different visions of each artist. And I love to see how different the gallery looks with a new show or by changing artist’s displays.
I hate having to play the role of “mom” and pushing artists to get things here on time. I also feel responsible for sales and making sure I can support the gallery team. That can be daunting.
How do you think the field will develop in the next five years? Any predictions?
I think jewelers will be selling directly to clients more. Clients are getting more comfortable buying online. I wonder if the big craft shows will fade away. They seem to be geared for an older audience. It may take longer than five years, but I don’t see the Millennials going out to these kinds of shows.
Shibumi Gallery, in San Francisco, has just opened an exhibition “for men,” looking to address its male patrons’ reticence toward ornaments. This is an exhibition that started with a “what if?” in mind: April Higashi, the owner, tells us how she tried to meet her male clients outside the safe realm of the wedding band, and about the challenge of giving a non-stereotypical jewelry shape to masculinity.
Benjamin Lignel: April, you just put together an exhibition of “jewelry for men,” and the project is exceptionally ambitious in the questions it raises. Before we get to these, can I ask if this is the first time you’ve done a “men’s show” and how long it took to organize?
April Higashi: This is the first men’s jewelry show at Shibumi. I asked the invited jewelers about six months before the show.
What was the motive behind the project? Did clients express the desire for more jewelry for men? Did you find that men’s jewelry was an underexploited niche?
April Higashi: Honestly? I made a ring for my boyfriend who really appreciated it and wore it almost daily. It looked so great on him. It made me wonder why more men don’t wear just one nicely designed piece of jewelry. Then I began to notice the men I thought would look good in jewelry and the men who were already wearing jewelry. Most of the men’s stuff I saw on was just awful or very cliché.
I find it attractive if a man is wearing just one beautiful piece of jewelry for many reasons. I also have a few male clients who have commissioned pieces of jewelry for themselves. I used this show as an exploration to see what men would wear and how they would interact with the pieces. Could I get them interested enough to try things on? Would it sell? Would women who wear jewelry buy something for their man?
This is a “men’s show” in at least two ways: It appears to cater to men, but also features a large cast of male makers, some of whom are not usually represented by the gallery. How did you put this cast together, and how did these new talents respond to your invitation?
April Higashi: You are very observant. I invited the jewelers I show whose aesthetic I thought would translate well into men’s jewelry. Then there were a few other artists whose work I really like, but whose aesthetic I always felt was too masculine for Shibumi, so I took this show as an opportunity to include them.
I think if I did it again I would maybe search a little farther out to find other makers who have already been doing men’s jewelry and for whom it is a niche, and who could bring in some clientele.
Did you ask makers to produce specifically for this project? Did you, yourself, make work with “men” as a target clientele in mind?
April Higashi: Some jewelers I knew—like Chris Neff, Jo Hayes Ward, Sam Woehrmann, Josh Wendler, and Curtis Arima—were already making some men’s jewelry. Myself, Maya Kini, Tura Sugden, Eric Silva, and Robert Brady had not really explored this much outside of men’s wedding bands.
I did make about 30+ new pieces. When I started making the work I got scared because of the investment it takes to make new work. In the end I did only one high-end piece (which sold). As for the rest, I decided I’d ride the line of chunky, more androgynous jewelry that I thought some of my women clients could also like. Or made pieces that I could take back into feminine forms later.
Your press release ends with a series of questions. One that looms large is “Do men value making and ornamentation differently than women?” Your unique position as a maker and a dealer must have provided you with a wealth of insight into this. What answer would you have given before you opened the show?
April Higashi: I would have to say before the show opened that very, very few men value jewelry for themselves. Especially straight men. They almost seem allergic to it.
That’s funny. I am currently reading up on the historical evolution of virility in the Western world since antiquity, and from what I understand, the idea that men should not wear jewelry is a rather recent idea, which has in the intervening time always been challenged (by sailors, by punks, by the New Romantics, etc.). Did you expect your male visitors to equate virility with the absence of ornaments?
April Higashi: I did. That is also one reason I did the show. Seriously, is a man less manly because he wears a piece of jewelry? I actually think the opposite, and that he’s more sexy with jewelry on. However, men rarely have the confidence to pick out a piece that suits them.
The show opened a couple of weeks ago. What has been the response to it—in particular from men?
April Higashi: The opening was great! Lots of action getting them to try jewelry on. I had to think of different words to use to sell the work. You can’t really say to a man, “that looks so pretty on you.” And when you are selling to a man it is important to include the woman he is there with. My women clients seemed excited to try to get their men into jewelry.
I have sold some pieces: half to men, the other half to women. Bi men and straight European men have been the purchasers. Meanwhile, my regular men clients seem to be curious about having such a big selection for men. They mostly look or can’t get past their wedding ring. I am still trying to get men to try on the work. Even when I do get it on a man and he likes it, the most common response is, “Hmm, ok, I’ll think about it.” And if they really do, then I have done a small part of my job. We’ll see what happens longer term. I don’t think the results will come in by the end of the show. It seems more like a longer-term commitment to explore.
I have still not found what entirely motivates the men. I do think in general that men are not used to spending as much on themselves. I can see that both the artists in the show and myself anticipated this when pricing the work. So far the men who appreciate the work are already hard-wired to like design and appreciate details of making. Their approach to buying the work is similar to women but they select more thoughtfully than emotionally.
The jewelry featured in the exhibition has qualities that adhere to masculine stereotypes (unfrilly, angular, rough, monomaterial, with the occasional skull). Do you think that these stereotypes are byproducts of a straight culture? What feedback have you received from your clients regarding what men’s jewelry shouldlook like?
April Higashi: I wouldn’t say it’s straight culture. I think it is simply reflective of the cultures men are identifying with, and the sort of jewelry that come with these models: punk, biking, gang, or military cultures, as well as graduation rings. Right?
I’m not sure if my men client’s know what men’s jewelry should look like. I included Robert Brady in the show. He is a sculptor and did wooden jewelry that is a bit tribal and not in the format of the rest of the men’s jewelry. The men don’t even seem to register his pendants as something they could even think of wearing. So when you get too far out of the box, the work just drops off their radar entirely.
You present the distinction between “masculine” and “feminine” jewelry as oversimplified: “Is there more to men’s jewelry than the distinction between masculine and feminine forms?” What do you mean by that?
April Higashi: When I was designing forms I had to hold myself back with the details. I pared down the elements both for aesthetical and cost reasons. The forms would not necessarily be that different, but I did tend to work on a larger scale, with a different orientation. An example of this was a men’s pendant I made that I think a woman would also wear. I turned the piece in the opposite direction than I would have if it were a women’s pendant. I can’t really verbalize why but somehow it just seems more masculine in this direction.
When I was displaying the show, the work from the 10 jewelers fit into these categories: Organic and rugged. Geometric and graphic. The work made was mostly monochromatic and when accented with precious metal it was usually white gold or a very small amount of yellow gold accents. In general there was less variety, less risks in design, less color or stones. Some of us even ended up exploring very similar forms.
Unless one specifies “for men,” jewelry is generally assumed to be for women. That, at any rate, was the thinking in the 20th century. Do you see this as changing? What do you think a “men’s show” will be like in 20 years? Will it even make sense?
April Higashi: That’s a good question. I see younger people being more androgynous; the men seem less concerned about being so masculine; checks on younger folks’ dates are assumed to be split equally. The men seem less threaten by a successful woman. Transgender is coming out into the media. Metrosexual men seem to be comfortable being confused with being gay. So I’d say that yes, things are changing. If jewelry follows suit, there will be less boundaries on everything: men desiring jewelry again, men breaking stereotypical molds. This means more play, more risk-taking. This is good news, as far as I am concerned!
Can you tell us what other projects you are currently working on?
April Higashi: In the gallery we have an upcoming enamel show co-curated by Elizabeth Shypertt. I’m busy answering a lot of interview questions. I’ve been getting a lot of press lately for the gallery shows, my work and lifestyle. In the studio we are going to start casting organic material. I love learning something new and taking my team on a journey to explore it with me. Things are never boring around here.
Work in this exhibition ranges from $250 to $4580.
Ben Lingel is an art historian (BA) and furniture designer (MA) by training, Benjamin Lignel veered toward jewelry design just after earning his master's degree. Lignel describes himself as a designer, writer, and curator. In 2007, he co-founded la garantie, association pour le bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewelry. He became a member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts, in 2009, and was a guest teacher at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Nuremberg, Germany) in 2013. Lignel was appointed editor of Art Jewelry Forum in January of the same year. In 2015, he edited the first book-length study of jewelry exhibition-making, "Shows and Tales."
Sitting down with April Higashi, the mind behind Shibumi Gallery
by Olivia Shih
Olivia: April, you have been working in and with contemporary art jewelry for over 20 years, but I would love to hear how you began your affair with jewelry.
April: I was actually working at Esprit de Corp in the textiles department but ended up working at a computer most of my work day. I needed to work with my hands again, so I found myself at a jewelry class at San Francisco City College. Although I had always loved making in general, metal arts was very challengingthe thought process was so different from textile and fabric, and this drew me in. The medium was an endless source for learning, so here I am still!
Olivia: Is there an artist or a few artists who influenced you the most, whether it be in jewelry or life?
April: Yes, a few people in particular have greatly inspired me. June Schwarcz, who passed away this year, was a strong influence both in the way she created work and the way she lived her life. She not only created amazing sculptural enamel vessels, but she surrounded herself with beautiful things and creative people. I was her assistant for a few years, and we remained friends until she passed away at 97 years old. Susan Cummins, who isn’t an artist per se but owned The Susan Cummins Gallery, was a mentor. I worked for her when I was 25. She taught me that you not only have to have a strong vision that is unique to yourself, but also that your business needs to make money to stay afloat. I learned so much, watching her form a strong community around her vision.
Olivia: Both June and Susan are innovators in the contemporary jewelry field, but have you ever been inspired by artists in other mediums?
When I was younger, I’d have said Frida Kahlo. I finally got to visit Casa Azul in Mexico City this past year, and I was reminded that she was a true individual. She created her own style and community of creative and intellectual people. She didn’t have an easy life, but it was definitely interesting and inspiring. She loved, lived, and created. She knew what she wanted and went after it, even if she didn’t always get it.
Olivia: I love that. It's clear to any visitor that Shibumi Gallery is a work of labor and love. What was your vision for the gallery when you first opened?
April: As I mentioned, I had worked for Susan Cummins at her gallery. I’d also been one of the early artists at Velvet da Vinci and had done display work for De Novo Gallery. What I took away from these experiences was this: show work beautifully. Show new work that hasn’t been seen by everyone. Show work from colleagues you respect and from upcoming talent you feel have unique vision. Show artful but wearable work. Always pay the artist before you pay yourself. Make the clients feel comfortable and welcome in your space. Connect them with the right piece that looks good on them. Listen to who they are. Share the things in life you love.
Olivia: Those are inspiring values to live and work by. You’re currently based in Berkeley, California, right? Can you describe what your environment is like and how it influences your life and work?
April: I am an extrovert inside an introvert’s body. I created an aesthetic environment in the gallery where I hope the beauty will draw one in. I want the space to speak for itself, so I don’t have to. The jewelry is usually displayed with twisted branches and driftwood and metalwork by my son’s father, Eric Powell, who is a metal sculptor and made all of the displays and the gallery doors. My gallery is connected to my studio and a larger design open space where my six year old son loves to draw. There is a modern earthy flavor to the space with organic elementsaccents of walnut, steel and art that I have collected or traded over the years. I’ve been told that the space seems creative and considered. I love that description.
Olivia: Shibumi really does resonate with Berkeley, with its respect for slow, considered craft and embracing nature. What is a working day at this East Bay gallery like?
April: Every day is different. If I’m lucky I’ll go for a short run or go get my new favorite coffee drink, a Gibraltar. Then I’ll do a few emails, check the calendar for client appointments, then browse and post to Instagram before heading to the gallery. Once there, I check in with my goldsmiths, look over and comment on completed work, and go over the day’s priorities to form a game plan.
Olivia: And that’s just your morning?
April: Yes! Afterwards, I’ll check in with my staff who has usually set up the gallery and is working away. I might see clients, do custom designs or quotes, work on new pieces, check in with galleries or artists, or work on upcoming shows. It’s never dull. Somewhere in there, I am usually doing a little coordination for my six year old son, and there you go. My day in a nutshell as jeweler, gallerist, and mother.
Olivia: What are the most difficult challenges you have had with being an artist and gallery owner?
April: Honestly, finding the right mix of talent for my staff and building a creative team where the dynamics are in sync has been the biggest challenge. I feel like a conductor for an orchestra. Everyone needs to work together and understand that we are a creative whole. That said, when the dynamic is good, we can create anything, and I feel so fortunate to do what I’m doing. Every day is a challenge, and I feel lucky that I can juggle it all. Some days I do better than others. I just consider myself fortunate that with my work and the gallery I can support myself, my son, my staff, and the artists I show.
Olivia: I have no idea how you do it, but you pull it off so beautifully. It’s been such an insightful interview thank you for taking time to chat with me.
April: Thank you that’s a nice reflection.