I travel for inspiration, perspective and to find a new understanding that will help make my world bigger. After the devastating US election, a busy holiday season and trying to be a decent parent, I was depleted by the end of December. I have always found a break is the best way to reset my life, discover greater empathy and restore my creativity.
Havana was a trip which expanded my world to include an understanding of a simple Cuban beauty and remind me of the circumstances we are born into. The pinhole of Cuban culture I witnessed in only a week was a mixture of socialism, history, music, dance, modernist architecture, art, tobacco, island time and of course Cuban flair. While I have traveled internationally a fair amount, it had been awhile since I had actual culture shock upon arrival in a country. Between the internet and international trade, one can often find the comforts of home. This is not the case yet in Cuba. There are no traces of the US post 1959. The old classic cars are the only reminders of the U.S. since Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and set in place the socialist government. Socialism gives people housing, heath care, education and subsidized food, yet many people still live in poverty.
While the government is starting to restore the historical center of the Habana Vieja to attract tourism, walk just a few streets away from the historic squares and you see how run down it is. The Cuban people don't own their buildings, only the apartments within them. Some families choose to paint the outsides but many don’t. That means you may see the bottom half of a building painted and the top crumbling because they are owned by two families. While walking on the Prado, a promenade for pedestrians to stroll, our guide Juan explained that only recently are the people to be able to buy property. Before, they came to the Prado with details of their property and then traded dwellings amongst themselves when they needed to move. He also showed us his food card which the Cubans use to purchase food at special markets and bodegas. Rations are reviewed monthly and they can pick up the basic food needs: 5 eggs, meat, beans, rice, milk, etc. The rationed allotment is free and if you need more you can purchase it at a subsidized price.
Walking and driving through Habana Vieja you see small snippets of the Cuban life. Their doors are open and their lives often spill out onto the streets. Through my walkabouts, I saw people dancing together or practicing solo in small rooms with techno and traditional Afro-Cuban music blaring - often with the TV still on. In a small living room children played with dolls. A man sat at his entrance, selling four little bags of macaroni pasta and a small pile of eggs. Some people sat quietly on their front step, others were talking with friends or neighbors. Teen girls whispered about boys. I spied a tiny tree with tinsel in a front room and a family enjoying a meal in back. There were entrances and tall staircases with electrical wiring that looked alarmingly unsafe.
There were small logos on doors for new businesses popping up. It wasn’t until the end of Fidel’s rule he allowed entrepreneurial self-employment. There are now small gyms, dancing schools, home art galleries and record stores to name a few.
There is no internet (unless you find a wi-fi spot, which you’ll know instantly by the many young folks milling about with their phones or go to a tourist hotel) so people still interact and socialize.
Iliana our hotel host said it herself, "Cubans are loud people. Even if there are right here,”--- pointing a foot away from her--- "we speak loudly." They talk at great length even over simple things like directions. Drivers do not pull out maps or phones when they need directions; they simply yell over to the next car or pull to the side to ask someone standing on the street. The conversations can go on for quite some time. It reminded me of how isolated and independent we have become with information fingertips. I thought about how much are we missing when we turn to our computers or phones and overlook the people we are right next to.
Something has definitely been lost in our culture.
It was an expansive trip for me. I learned so much about The Cuban Revolution, about Amercia’s embargo on Cuba and the mix of emotions and tension it has created. I saw a country with hope that things are getting better but are still hard when faced with the reality that they can not easily leave.
Being an entrepreneur myself, I couldn’t help but notice how businesses run in Cuba.
There was a dark grey Art Nouveaux building near the Prado that held a perfumery. I had big expectations - the thought of Cuban perfume seemed so exotic. However, upon entering this beautiful building the perfumes were not original scents but many of the bigger European brands seen anywhere else in the world. They were stacked in their boxes and locked up in two cages. Very unapproachable. Two nicely dressed sales people stood at the back behind an empty counter that would have easily been set up for sampling and spontaneous tourist purchases.
I wasn’t sure I was aligned with the aesthetics in Cuba before I left for my trip. However after a week of walking through the city, which I can only describes as a shade brighter than power pink, mint green and sky blue, the pallette made complete sense and seemed perfect and beautiful. Women dressed in bright colors, neon even, skirts that fit so with such body contouring I was impressed that they were so comfortable in their bodies. I saw a lot of men in black and white patterns with brightly colored accents. Red shoes were very popular as were distressed jeans on both sexes. The accessories on one woman were a hot pink belt and matching pumps which made me recoil at first. But when I saw her dancing rumba with her partner at the Casa de la Musica and the way she moved her hips to the beat, I suddenly thought her choice of attire looked lovely and tasteful and I wanted to be her. She later returned to her group of friends with a big ice bucket on the table with a large bottle of rum and poured some in her glass with the Cuban equivalent to coca-cola.
The art of every culture is always a big draw for me. One day I had a big dose of Cuban art. Going from Miramar to Playa, areas with points of interest far apart from one another, you can hire a cab for $25 an hour and they will wait as you enjoy each stop. We were taken to an alley with many murals, El Callejón de Hamel by Cuban muralist Salvador González. Besides his murals there is outsider art including bathtubs as benches to rest on and rough plasma cut metal and found object sculptures. The alley is said to have dancing (Rumba) on Sundays.
I’d wished we’d put in more effort to architectural points of interest. We had hoped to see the architecture of the ISA (the art school). However we could not get in without an appointment. But the brick domes and organic arches looked very interesting as we peered over the fence. Driving on El Malecón we passed Parque José Martí Stadium an abandoned stadium built in the 1940’s. Architecturally interesting with it’s faded colored benches and shell-like arches, I have had dreams about it since I have been back and have looked up further images and information to ponder.
There are two artists in particular I took note of. The first is Kcho, an internationally recognized artist who became well known in his 20’s and has shared his success with the community by opening up his studio and compound to all. His complex is in walking distance of ISA. You are supposed to make an appointment in advance, but we got lucky stopping by and joined another tour already underway. The complex has a gallery where he shows guest artists and a working warehouse/studio for himself, which is the most interesting. He also shares the space with his 18 year old son, who is in the arts. Outside are more works in progress, outdoor sculptures and public artworks. The piece that pretty much describes what some of the more outright Cuban people think of American was a tall tower of luggage with the American flag draped over the top titled "I don’t want anything from you.” There is also a small theater and computer lab. Through a sponsorship with Google it is the one place in Havana with free internet.
The second artist of note is Casa Estudio Jose Fuster (Jamanita). This tile artist has made a museum that is definitely worth seeing. Not only has he created an endless tile mosaic world of sculptures and murals that has totally transformed his own property, he also extends his work into the neighborhood, neighbors’ houses, alley walls, bus stop, and practically any available surface.
For me, travel is not about seeing things that align perfectly with who I believe I am. I think I travel because it shows me where I am limited. I have to say the pollution from leaded gas was hard to breath in and the food was a little underwhelming. But even with this I had some notable adventures.
Imagine the thought of planning a peaceful trip to the countryside of Viñales to escape the pollution and crowds only to find your driver waiting for you with a Lada - a Russian car from the days when Russians support was integral to Cuba (1959-1991). Ladas have notoriously poor exhaust systems (which fill the backseats with fumes), no seat belts and our driver had to pull over several times for roadside repairs and adjustments.
Lunches sometimes felt a bit like torture as we had to wait up to 2 1/2 hours for the food to arrive. What do you talk about with no iPhone to distract you? How do you keep up conversation? You don’t. You let the pauses and many moments of stillness be there. You wait patiently and enjoy the moist air awhile you relax. And when your food finally arrives and it expectations let you down, you eat every bit and appreciate the way you feel nourished and have regained some energy for the next adventure.
I’m happy to share my favorite finds or an itinerary that I think would be helpful for anyone thinking of visiting Cuba. But I suggest instead to simply be present and watch. Cuba is a beautiful culture so different that ours. Once I slowed down and realized I was not looking for big a-ha moments, I began to appreciate it much more. I feel lucky to have visited. A Socialist government I had never experienced. If I were to go back I would go with a better camera, take a dance class, do a little more research on the architecture and food, and hopefully know some Spanish.
I don’t know how quickly travel in Cuba will change but, email me if you would like my highlights of my week in Havana. I have a detailed list. As a woman I should say I did not travel alone and was with a man, but found the people either friendly or indifferent and I felt safe in all areas we ventured.
I am never sure how I will process these images and cultures into my work but I know for one thing it changes me and refreshes my world.
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.
This project was inspired by my clients.
Over the years of making and selling jewelry I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people and hear the myriad of stories and events that so often accompany a piece of jewelry; stories of relationships, marriages and anniversaries, births and birthdays, divorces and deaths and pretty much everything in-between these significant moments. My clients have sometimes shared family secrets and tidbits of their lives that even their spouses, partners, family or friends don’t know. Jewelry and stories go hand in hand and relationships and events can forever remain entwined with the piece. I am forever curious and deeply honored to play a small yet significant role in these life events.
Through working as a jeweler and gallerist I have amassed an archive of stories from my clients. I love the way my clients, many who I now count as friends, mix the work with their own pieces and then to watch as over the years work from the gallery often begins taking over their fingers and bodies each time they come in.
My clients are aesthetically minded, thoughtful, smart and engaging people who have found ways to express their own individuality through their jewelry. Shibumi Project documents these people who have shared their stories and lives with me while supporting my work and the gallery.
Shibumi Project will be a collaboration with photographer Cynthia Wood who will capture the way which my clients layer pieces together revealing their own unique styles and personalities. Accompanying the photographs and with their permission will be the story of a piece of jewelry which they shared with me on visits to the studio and gallery.
Several times a year the website will feature a new client and their story. Past projects will be archived on the Project + Press page.
A very special thank you to all of my clients who have supported my work, the gallery and shared their stories with me along the way, continuously inspiring and speaking my imagination and creativity.