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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)


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”

Raïssa Portrait_800x600px.jpg

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.”


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.


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!


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: Photo: Margo Moritz


PressApril HigashiComment

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.

Thank you.


An Interview with April Higashi: THE MEN’S SHOW, Shibumi Gallery, San Francisco, California, USA By Benjamin Lionel for The Art Jewelry Forum

PressApril HigashiComment

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.

Thank you!

Work in this exhibition ranges from $250 to $4580.


Link to The Art Jewelry Forum Article can be found here.

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." 

Karen Gilbert: Shift

Artist Profile, PressApril HigashiComment

Karen Gilbert is a designer, jeweler, mother, wife, partner in a glass business, and gallery owner. I don’t think she can fit one more thing on her plate. She is having a show with Shibumi Gallery, where owner April Higashi is pretty much in the same boat. How do these women do it…and do it so well? In this show called Shift, Karen has shifted the look of her jewelry to a simpler, more colorful style.

Susan Cummins: What is the story of your journey to becoming a jeweler?

Karen Gilbert: I became a jeweler by accident. I was a student at California College of Arts and Crafts in the painting department when I took an elective in the metals department and became mesmerized by the material of metal. I loved drilling it, sculpting it, torching it—all the tactile qualities appealed to me. I switched my major, and at the same time, became involved in the glass department. The two materials had the immediacy that I needed. I love to work quickly and to respond to my materials as I am working. After school, I worked for numerous jewelers, and that led me into creating wearable pieces. I loved that people actually wanted to buy and wear what I created, and that the relationship of maker and collector really gives meaning to art.

And what is the story of your journey to becoming a gallery owner in the town of Healdsburg, California?

Karen Gilbert: Healdsburg was chosen for the physical beauty of the location for our family and a real sense of possibility, along with its potential built-in clientele for a gallery. With luck, I met Katrina Schjerbeck, who also had passion for art as well as seeing the potential for a Healdsburg gallery, and we really needed each other to make a gallery work. I had the contacts and information on curating for the artists, and Katrina had the ability to manage and oversee the vision.


And what is the story of the collaborative design studio SkLO you started with Pavel Hanousek and Paul Pavlak?

Karen Gilbert: Through the gallery, I met our SkLO business partner Pavel Hanousek, who imports Czech glass from master glass artists in the Czech Republic. The aesthetics of his business were in desperate need of updating. My husband and I joined him, re-branded the business, and now are owners and designers of a glass-based design company. It has been a fascinating challenge to approach work as a designer instead of as the maker. What I love about SkLO is being able to work within one of the world’s great craft traditions—Czech glassblowers—yet having the freedom to make work that does not put technical skill before overall concept and design. Along with my husband Paul Pavlak, I have the opportunity to sculpt the entire vision of the company. It is a huge challenge that involves business savvy as well as creativity. SkLO is successfully growing and is finding a receptive market and critical acclaim.

You are super busy. How do you find time to make jewelry? How do you organize your life?


Karen Gilbert: My time is very tight. I have gone from a relaxed artist lifestyle to being a mother and owner of three businesses. I need a lot more structure in my life. I get up early, and I stick to a routine to get it all done. I think this is changing my work and the visual language that I see in my head, so it is an interesting new path. Jewelry has a much smaller part in my week, but when I am in the studio, it is still a really important time.

Does working with SkLO influence your jewelry designs? How?

Karen Gilbert: I am sure it does. Like I mentioned, it creates more structure, but it also needs to be thought about in terms of being a cohesive body of work. We talk a lot about branding and the language and look of SkLO being something someone knows when they see it. We are aware of this language but also conscious of keeping the audience on their toes. We don’t want to follow the trends, but to pay homage to them and to reflect on our modern society. With my jewelry, it is the same, yet a bit more of a personal commentary. I think of more personal issues with my own work, and with SkLO, I consider more universal issues of design.

This body of work you are showing at Shibumi seems to be a step away from work you have done in the past. There is less glass and more enamel, for example, and the designs are simpler. What is going on here?

Karen Gilbert: I think my influences are shifting. It sort of goes back to the question of time and structure. I personally love very minimalist artwork, but find that my mind does not work in those terms. I am trying to refine and make myself simplify without taking the depth away from the work. Sometimes the pieces want more, sometimes they want less. I am trying to create both dialogues. Also, enamel is just another form of glass that simply alters my technique. I love the endless colors that enamel allows. In the past, I have found it frustrating to use enamel because I don’t have as much control or ability to create my desired effect. I have chosen to really push and experiment with torch enameling, and I enjoy the process, seeing how far I can push it. I feel as though I am just getting started with these new techniques.


What do you think your jewelry does best?

Karen Gilbert: I really like the way my jewelry looks on people. It moves and is wearable in a way that can compliment an individual’s style. I like the tactile quality, that it is very three dimensional, and that almost every piece is different.

April Higashi, who owns Shibumi Gallery, and you are both jewelers who own galleries. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a maker and a dealer?


Karen Gilbert: It is nice having April to talk to about our shared experiences. I think having a gallery is an additional creative outlet that allows me to not feel like I always have to be producing in the studio. I love to see new work come in and fit it into our aesthetic. It is adding another stroke of paint to the painting, moving it around, and tweaking it to tell our story. I also can get excited about selling other people’s work. I enjoy seeing someone fall for another artist’s work as much as my own. It is a business that takes a ton of time and work. It may seem like galleries just get the work and sell it, but every artist, every piece, takes a lot of time and attention to get it ready to sell and to find the right buyer. At Gallery Lulo, I am fortunate to have a great partner in Katrina Schjerbeck.

Thank you.

Special thanks to AJF (Art Jewelry Forum) for writing and publishing this article.  Click here to visit their blog.  

Maya Kini: Silk

Press, Artist ProfileApril HigashiComment

An Interview by Susan Cummins for Art Jewelry Forum

01 March 2013


Jeweler April Higashi runs Shibumi Gallery in Berkeley, California. She shows mainly local jewelers and American jewelers who make well-designed, wearable work. Her gallery is located in a retail/manufacturing area, and her living quarters are right above the gallery. It is a wonderful space. April has discovered a lovely maker named Maya Kini,who is having her first full-scale solo show, Silk, at the gallery. Maya brings a complex background to her work.

Susan Cummins: Maya, can you tell me about your background? Your place of origin? Your schooling? How you became a jeweler?

Maya Kini: I was born and raised in the Boston area, the fourth of five children by parents from vastly different worlds. My mother is Italian American from New England, and my father emigrated from India in 1957 to get his PhD. He decided to stay in the US after meeting my mother. From a young age, I was given jewelry by visiting Indian relatives—bangles, anklets, and fine gold chains. Adornment begins at a young age in India and evolves into a complex language of beauty, wealth, and status.

I studied sculpture and literature at Reed College and eventually wrote my thesis on the translation of Catholicism and its earliest dispersion into New Spain. I received my degree in Spanish literature in 2000. In 1996, I was introduced to jewelry making in Mexico, and that seed developed into further study, apprenticeships with other jewelers, and eventually an MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art. I received my degree in 2007 under the guidance of Gary Griffin (2005–2006) and Iris Eichenberg (2006–2007). Currently, I operate my own small studio that focuses on commissions, multiples, and one-of-a-kind pieces.

I love the relationship between jeweler and patron—this sustained tradition of knowing where a piece of jewelry comes from and whose hands have crafted it. There are few objects with which we adorn ourselves that allude to both ritual and beauty. Jewelry has captured this unique place.

As an instructor at the University of California–Davis Craft Center, can you talk about the program and give us an example of a project you like to assign to your students?

Maya Kini: My husband and I moved to Sacramento in 2007. He is the director of a housing-policy organization, so proximity to the capital is important. I wanted to stay involved in the jewelry world and discovered the UC Davis Craft Center in 2008, after our daughter was born. It is a laidback place, separate from the art department and accessible to the students and staff at UC Davis and to the greater community. I have a wide range of students, from geneticists to ecologists to artists. The Craft Center offers the usual assortment of applied arts with some great access to glass fusing, casting, lampworking, blacksmithing, and furniture making. I teach lost-wax casting. Typically we begin by carving rings and creating texture. I try to introduce students to the advantages of casting for creating complex surfaces, incorporating found objects, and tempting serendipity—letting go of one’s original intention and discovering the potency of the mistake. Beginning casting is a particularly good medium to illuminate this aspect of of making. 


There seem to be three elements that contribute to your exhibition. Can you describe the role of silk, of cast metal, and of the story that goes with it?

Maya Kini: This show developed out of my thesis work at Cranbrook and a series of objects my Indian grandmother carried with her in her purse. There were mundane objects—dentures, bobby pins, and handkerchiefs—and also ornate gold jewelry. Essentially, she had all of the jewelry she owned in her purse at the time of her death. I imagined what an archaeologist might do with such an archive, and so I studied it, cataloged it, and eventually wrote a series of short stories based on these objects. I then attempted to develop a language based on these cataloged objects to make jewelry. While the resulting pieces were largely unsuccessful, that was the first time I cast silk, and I fell in love with the texture and the process of casting. I decided then to focus on the silk and its translation into metal. In that process, I discovered the palette, textures, and forms that I had been looking for. 

How did the idea for this show develop?

Maya Kini: We visited India in 2009–my first visit there as an adult. We went to a government silk factory where the workers take the silk through the entire process, from boiling the cocoons to spinning the thread, dying the thread, weaving the silks, and embellishing them with the zari (metallic thread). While on that trip, my aunt gave me a pile of saris woven in the Indian city of Benares in the 1960s. The saris were made of silk georgette with silver embroidery. They had belonged to my grandmother, but the silk was now so fragile that they could not be worn without tearing.

The saris sat in my studio until I had the idea to cut out small sections with the silver embroidery, back them with wax, and take them through the lost-wax process. The resulting pieces often emerged looking more moth-eaten than when they had gone into the molds. But, I found that the silver woven into the original sari material did not burn out in the mold. Instead, it became embedded into the casting. This was a lovely discovery, for it meant that there was part of the original cloth in the new casting. It fell in line with how I think about the process of casting in general, which is a way to generate something imperfectly related to the original rather than a perfect copy. 

The sculptor Rachel Whiteread (who uses casting to illuminate the space between things, or the space we don’t often consider) says this of the process of casting:

A cast of an object traps it in time, eventually displaying two histories–its own past and the past of the object it replicates. The perfect expression of this is the death mask. It captures all the physical accretions of the human face soon after that face has completed its living existence but before rigor mortis accelerates it towards disintegration. It remains in the world to remind us of the dead as both portrait and memorial, a replica of an object in its own right. 

For me, the silk is material—strong, soft, and lavish. The metal is a neutral space where the texture and embellishments on the silk can come alive and be preserved, and the story relates these materials back to the people they will outlive. 


Are you expressing the “cycle of generation, decay, and transformation” as the gallery press release states? Explain.

Maya Kini: There is one piece in the show calledRegeneration made from a slab of bone with all of these bits of metal that were made by pouring molten metal into water. The metal bits appear to be growing out of the bone like lichen. That piece may be the most succinct at expressing a cycle of generation, decay, and transformation. My general perception of material, especially metal, is that it is not static. Why do we work with metal? Perhaps, ultimately, because it is a sustainable material. And what does that mean? That we are always beginning in the middle, starting a new piece with the scraps of another, stringing together shards of many works to make a new thing. It is with this absurd hope that the things we make might persevere that our hands stay busy, skirting the edge of the scrap yard, the rim of the crucible. 

Can we as humans connect with the life of an object? Explain.

Maya Kini: I love this last question. In my studio, I have a poem by Jorge Luis Borges called “To a Coin.” In it, he describes throwing a coin from the deck of a ship, imagining the unconscious but parallel destiny of the coin alongside his own:

…I felt I had committed an irrevocable act,

Adding to the planet

Two endless series parallel, possibly infinite;

My own destiny, formed from anxieties, love and futile upsets

And that of that metal disc

Carried away by the water to the quiet depths…

We exist alongside all of these objects that will define us in our deaths—the things we wear, the things we carry in our purses, our books, our music, our art. We are intimately connected until we die, and then the objects go on. They connect to another person, develop new meaning, new significance. For me, it is difficult to imagine the things I have collected existing beyond my own lifetime, and yet, as a metalsmith, I know that they will. Like Borges in his poem, I have a little bit of envy and a little bit of remorse for the unconsciousness and the longevity of objects.

Thank you. That was a lovely ending.