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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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." 

Christina Odegard: MATIN

Artist ProfileApril Higashi

04/07/2016

Shibumi Gallery, Berkeley, California, USA

By Jessica Hughes
Originally Published On Art Jewelry Forum

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Christina Odegard’s deep appreciation for the beauty and elegance of natural materials, as well as her extensive exploration of form, is apparent in her work. Meanwhile, “shibumi” is a Japanese word referring to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. So it’s no surprise to see Christina Odegard’s work featured at the Shibumi Gallery in Berkeley, California.

Jessica Hughes: Can you tell us about your background?

Christina Odegard: I grew up in a rural community in England, about halfway between London and Brighton on the southeast coast, although both my parents are American. I spent many a day roaming our family farm, exploring nature. I attended an alternative school, which taught many traditional crafts, fostering my love of the arts.

I’ve read that you came from a family of artists. What made you decide to go into the jewelry field?

Christina Odegard: I attended Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), thinking I would continue studying fashion design, as I had been working in costumes and fashion. After a foundation year, I had to decide my major, and new experiences led me to the jewelry and light metals department.

Can you talk a little bit about your process and what inspires you?

Christina Odegard: I’m very interested in the work, lives, and processes of many artists. Artworks from ancient to contemporary inspire me, but my inspiration also comes from the process of transforming natural raw materials. Working with these diverse materials informs a direction to create a form which is quiet and elegant, yet maintains a simplicity of its origin.

Your show at Shibumi Gallery is open from March 12 through May 1. Can you tell us about the pieces you’re presenting there?

Christina Odegard: For this show I was interested in using black as a unifying theme. A few summers ago, my husband, daughter, and I spent some weeks traveling through Iceland. There, inspired by the dramatic lunar landscape, I picked up some obsidian, adding to a growing collection of black material. These blacks are all so diverse, yet subtle and quiet. For this show I have also included black diamonds, jet, ebony, horn, coral, and tourmaline, exploring further subtleties of the shade.

You’ve been carving or casting a similar shape—the cluster—in a variety of materials (jet, horn, tourmaline, gold). What dictates the use of one material over another in each of these instances?

Christina Odegard: The cluster form is a fascinating form to carve, as from all angles it can look different. After each cluster I carve, I still feel there is more to discover; I can refine it, perfect it, explore deeper. Thus it’s interesting for me to carve the cluster in different materials, to see how each responds. It’s like a question that never gets answered, but it’s still fascinating to ask it again and again.

Proposing variants on the same theme suggests an interest in developing design solutions into ranges (I am thinking for example of the tourmaline, the gold, and the pavé version of your Cloud ring). Contemporary jewelers tend to be timid about producing work across materials, preferring the art logic of developing various works using the same material and process. Does that make you a “designer”?

Christina Odegard: I’m not really concerned about labels. When I’m interested in a form or idea, I will pursue it until it no longer holds a mystery for me. Using different materials is an exploration, and can push me technically and artistically.

Among these materials, bison horn is unusual. The power and malleability of that material is particularly apparent in your Bison d’Or earrings. How did you begin working with it, and why do you like it?

Christina Odegard: Horn is very malleable, and it can be cut and carved in so many ways. It’s also a material used in ancient/primitive jewelry, which interests me.

You’re a jeweler and a sculptor. Do you approach creating jewelry differently than sculpture?

Christina Odegard: The jewelry and sculpture differ primarily in size. I approach them similarly, although for me the jewelry has to work on the body, complement the beauty of the wearer, and not dominate or take over. Sculpture can stand alone, responding to its surroundings, but not limited by them. I have created a series of sculptural bronze pieces, which is a material I haven’t used in jewelry.

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With your husband, you founded the gallery called Matin in Los Angeles. Does being a gallerist affect the way you make jewelry? Does being a jeweler affect the way you choose art and artists for the gallery?

Christina Odegard: My husband, Robert Odegard, is the primary gallerist for Matin. We are interested in a particular aesthetic, quality and beauty. This is what informs our goals for the gallery.

From the perspective of an artist and a gallerist, do you have advice for emerging artists?

Christina Odegard: Work hard and be authentic.

What projects are next for you?

Christina Odegard: I’m creating a new series of small cluster sculptures, larger than the jewelry pieces yet using some of the same materials.

Have you seen, heard, or read anything interesting lately that you could share with us?

Christina Odegard: One artist/writer I truly admire is Edmund de Waal. I highly recommend his most recent book, The White Road.

Thank you!

The works in this exhibition are priced between US$200 and $12,000.

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Jessica Hughes is a graphic designer, writer, and jewelry enthusiast. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, Jessica received her BFA at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia. Currently, she is the senior visual design manager at a fashion jewelry company, where she focuses on graphic design, jewelry design, marketing, and trend research.

Sitting down with April Higashi, the mind behind Shibumi Gallery

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Sitting down with April Higashi, the mind behind Shibumi Gallery

by Olivia Shih

April Higashi, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

April Higashi, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

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! 

April Higashi, Furattā, 2015, 22k yellow gold, leaded enamel, black onyx, steel chain, 2 7⁄8”Pendant, 33" steel chain, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Furattā, 2015, 22k yellow gold, leaded enamel, black onyx, steel chain, 2 7⁄8”Pendant, 33" steel chain, photo: Shibumi Gallery

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.

April Higashi, Ambā Ki, 2015, amber drops, 4.64 ctw diamonds, 18k and 22k gold, 2”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Ambā Ki, 2015, amber drops, 4.64 ctw diamonds, 18k and 22k gold, 2”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

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.

April Higashi, Matte Black Onyx and Bronze with Black Diamond Bead Necklace, 2015, black onyx, bronze, black diamonds, 19”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Matte Black Onyx and Bronze with Black Diamond Bead Necklace, 2015, black onyx, bronze, black diamonds, 19”, photo: Shibumi Gallery

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.

Furattā II, 2015, 22k & 18k gold,black onyx, diamonds, 1 5⁄8”, photo: ShibumiGallery

Furattā II, 2015, 22k & 18k gold,black onyx, diamonds, 1 5⁄8”, photo: ShibumiGallery

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.

April Higashi, Topography Rings (Women’s), 2015, Silver, 18k, mackel diamonds, 4mm & 2.5mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Topography Rings (Women’s), 2015, Silver, 18k, mackel diamonds, 4mm & 2.5mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

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.

April Higashi, Topography Ring ( Men's), 2015, silver, mackel diamonds, 10mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

April Higashi, Topography Ring ( Men's), 2015, silver, mackel diamonds, 10mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery

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.

Shibumi Gallery, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

Shibumi Gallery, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood

June by April

InspirationApril HigashiComment

I was 30 when I met June Schwarcz at her 80th retrospective at the American Craft Museum. When I approached her to ask to work as her assistant, we complimented each other on our skirts, both Commes des Garçons, and were soon so lost in conversation that I forgot to mention I'd love to work for her. The line behind me getting long, I gave her my card and told her I admired her work and that I also worked in enamel. June had the same idea I did, and a month later invited me to join her in the studio. Mondays were filled with three hours of work and four hours of lunch, sharing stories about art, the people who made and sold it and ordinary things like family and relationships.

Working for June, I learned how she saw and created in three dimensions. One of the first task she gave me was to lay out a flat pattern and cut it out of thin copper, like cutting fabric for clothing.  June's process was much like sewing.  Inspiration came from anything she felt was beautiful: when her grandson Adam went through a phase of wearing oversized, droopy pants, she did a series of vessels about his pants.  She often said she didn’t like conceptual art because if it wasn’t beautiful, she couldn’t relate to it. 

Though she was 50 years older, she always wanted to pull her own weight.  I had to trick her into letting me help her with things.  When leaving her studio together, June carrying her heavy basket of supplies up the stairs, I'd offer, "June, let me get that." She'd refuse and ask me to get the lights. I knew in the future not to ask before grabbing the basket.

Over the last seventeen years, I visited her regularly, we went to art shows and dinners. I dressed for June, because we were both interested in fashion and we had similar taste.   She always wore something interesting unless she was in the studio.  I like a gal who has a sense of style but also gets down to business. For an opening at Susan Cummins Gallery, she arrived in black Issey Miyake, and someone had handed her a bright pink peony.  I complimented her shoes, so cool and perfect with the outfit! I asked her where she got them. "Oh honey, it's the best little shoe store called Gimme Shoes, I've got to take you there!" I loved that she thought I wouldn't know about it--the hippest shoe store in San Francisco--and I imagined her there picking out her shoes. 

I was lucky enough to trade work with her.  One piece of mine she wanted was an all-red enameled Panel Bracelet that was in a show at the Richmond Art Center. June called me and said, "I know the show is not coming down for a week but I am going to New York and I have the perfect outfit to wear that with. Would you ask them if you could get it early?" I got her the bracelet for her trip.

There was so much more to June than fashion. She was young at heart and I never felt our age difference until I started to see her hand shaking as she picked up her tea.  She was the most inspiring and curious woman I've ever met. She had great taste and gave her opinions freely. Beauty, honesty and curiosity were were our connection.  If you were fortunate enough to have met her even once, your perspective on life as a woman artist was changed forever.

June 10, 1918– August 2, 2015