April Higashi is a jeweler who opened a lovely intimate gallery called Shibumiin
Berkeley, California, a number of years ago. I know her to be
industrious and thoughtful, which is reflected in the work she does as
well in how she has structured her life and her gallery. She is lots of
fun, a woman of many talents and has a good time making things work in
her life. At the moment she is having a show called Geologica
by Brigid O’Hanrahan, who works in both porcelain and metal and often
combines the two in her jewelry. Her sensitive rings and brooches give
you a hint of her shy nature. Susan Cummins: I
know we have worked together in the past, but please refresh my memory
about how you got to be the owner of a jewelry gallery.
Higashi: I’ve been making jewelry for twenty years. Even in the
beginning when I was first starting to make jewelry, I always thought
about how it would be shown, grouped together or how it could be worn.
When I worked at your gallery (Susan Cummins Gallery, Mill Valley,
California) you instilled in me the importance of thought, idea and
craftsmanship in each piece. While there, I realized how much I enjoyed
aesthetically arranging and grouping the work. I also realized during
that time how much I liked working directly with clients. So I knew I
would enjoy curating a gallery. When my husband and I were looking to
buy a house we found a building that was zoned for partial commercial
use. The space was large enough to have both a workshop/studio and a
gallery on the bottom floor. With this set up I felt I could continue to
be a jewelry maker as well as take on a new role as curator and gallery
owner. Originally I was thinking I would only do the gallery part-time.
The reality, however, is that I have ended up creating two full-time
jobs for myself. Fortunately I am a good delegator and so I have also
‘curated’ an amazing creative team to help me. Is it just a jewelry gallery or do you show other things as well?
Higashi: The focus of the gallery is contemporary art jewelry with some
three-dimensional work. My husband is a sculptor and we show his work
as well as work by other sculptors. I also show a few select clothing
designers whose work is one-off or limited quantities and who come from a
more hands-on background in textiles. I think it’s interesting to try
to get people who wear artful clothing to wear artful jewelry. The link
is actually not obvious to most of my clients, which surprised me.
Occasionally I do show paintings and flat or two-dimensional art, but it
is usually to compliment the aesthetic and feeling of one of the
jewelry shows. How is it working for you to have your home, studio and gallery in one place?
Higashi: I would say that we are the true example of integrating LIFE +
WORK. We have a two year old and the only way I could do as much as I
do and be a mother is because he is just a floor away from it all. So
mostly I like it. But there are days that I want to get away from it.
For that, I travel. In
2009, while I was pregnant, I was hoping to refresh my vision of the
gallery before I had my baby. I went to the American Craft Council
conference, Creating A New Craft Culture. Elissa Author shared
many examples of the 1960s studio artist movement and quite a few of
those artists were from California and the West. What struck me was that
the artists of that era were committed to their artwork and studio
practices from the perspective of a lifestyle. Which doesn’t really seem
to be the case anymore. I like to think about George Nakashima and his
commitment to this lifestyle. His life revolved around making his work
and there are photos of his son sitting at one of his tables doing his
homework right alongside him. I also really like that my son, Ando, is
being raised around all this making and thinking it’s normal. He already
loves sitting at the goldsmith bench and pretends to work away. The
other day he left an intertwined mound of hammers on the floor in the
studio and said, ‘Mama don’t touch, Ando’s sculpture.’
integration of life and work seems to continue more out of necessity
than choice. I have to devote time to making new pieces and evolving as
an artist in order to make a living. But I am happy to be reminded that
it is a choice I’ve made and the lifestyle I have chosen. What are the criteria you use to find artists work for the gallery?
Higashi: I find artists to show at Shibumi Gallery through both my
working and social relationships. Usually we meet at shows or because
I’m so immersed in the art jewelry world our paths will inevitably cross
at some point. On occasion I see a piece of work that makes me track
down an artist. I
tend to choose work by jewelers who I feel are both artists and
visionaries. They are usually professional, mid-career artists who are
committed to making and selling work but have also have never given up
on their own creative vision. Because my life and work are so integrated
it is not surprising that when I like an artist’s work I usually also
like the person and we often become friends.
It’s important for me
to represent people I believe in and whose perspective I respect. I
show around 40 artists and I have been told that there is an overlapping
aesthetic among the artists I show. It is also important to me that
they are craftspeople and makers, not just designers who work on the
computer or paper. I like artists who pull ideas from the depths of
themselves and don’t just follow trends. To me this often ensures that
their work will continue evolving in new and interesting directions. Who are your clients?
Higashi: My clients are artistically minded, usually non-traditional,
critical thinkers, often leading an ‘individualistic’ lifestyle. They
are people who value work that is thoughtfully crafted, beautiful and
has been created with an artistic vision. Generally my clients are
people in their 30s to 50s with a career in the world of art and design
or social services and humanities. If they are older they are people I
would describe as ‘ageless,’ meaning you would often guess them to be
much younger because of their spirit and attitude. They seek out
beautiful or unique pieces not to impress others but because they have a
personal affinity with the piece. And in most cases my clients are
people I would enjoy seeing or being around outside of the gallery. Do
you feel that the field of art jewelry has established a market place
or do you thing we should take Garth Clark’s advise and hitch our wagon
April Higashi: That is a hard question. I feel
like how we view ourselves and our work is what creates a market.
Although I probably say this because I don’t want to give up on an
artful jewelry approach and become a commercial jeweler. I do think,
Susan, you’ve done a lot for the art jewelry world. And working with you
definitely inspired my perspective. In
saying that I want to show ‘contemporary art jewelry,’ I don’t mean I
want to be linked to the fine art world. I think jewelers who make work
that they consider ‘fine art’ should make sculpture. And I also believe
it’s a good idea to move the image of art jewelry away from the
‘wearable art’ movement. To me jewelry should be artful, wearable and
aesthetically appealing. I prefer the idea of art jewelry being linked
to the ‘applied arts’ movement.
As to Garth’s suggestion that we
give up and hitch craft to design, I disagree. I don’t think we should
be linked with designers who don’t come from a background of ‘making’ or
of craftsmanship. I think there is often a very big difference between
‘makers’ and designers.
But ultimately what it comes down to for
me is this: there are few great artists and many mediocre artists and
that is where I draw the line with my gallery. I’m looking for fine art,
craft and design. And I’m looking for quality, dedication and a
creative vision. Many artists have some or even most of these qualities,
but very few have all of these qualities. Thank you, April. Now I am going to ask some questions of Brigid O’Hanrahan, whose show Geologica is currently on show in the gallery.Can you tell me how you became a jeweler?
O'Hanrahan: I was at San Francisco State (a chemistry major) and I
started making earrings in the form of electron clouds, made from wire
and beads. I sold my first earrings at Nannys, a great jewelry store on
lower Grant. Later I met Sammy Gee, who had a jewelry shop on upper
Grant and he showed me how to work with lost wax and casting. When I
moved to Los Angeles, I started taking metals classes at Cal State
Northridge and completed a masters in metals (both jewelry and objects)
with Arline Fisch at San Diego State. You
were a teacher for many years at Millersville University in
Pennsylvania. When did you retire and move to California? How are you
Brigid O'Hanrahan: In retrospect I wouldn't
recommend two major changes at the same time – it was overwhelming! I'm
glad to be back, but miss my dear friends in Philadelphia and the ease
of getting around to see people and events. Do you miss teaching? What was your favorite assignment?
O'Hanrahan: I loved teaching metals, especially beginning classes, but
after teaching almost 30 years I was ready to let someone else bring
their ideas to the students. At this point in my life I want to focus on
my own work.
My favorite assignment was the first one. It was to
saw out something no larger than 2 x 3 inches in any direction that
'looked right' without drawing on the metal. They were to make it into a
pin or key-chain ornament using sawing, filing and soldering and wear
it when leaving class – and they were great! Your work
often combines a white-pitted porcelain and gold or silver. How did
you come to use this combination of materials? Are there historical
Brigid O'Hanrahan: The porcelain pieces have
several sources: Chinese bowls that appear to have rice shapes burned
out in the firing and then filled with transparent glaze and fired; a
friend introducing me to making small cups by hand out of porcelain; and
being part of the New Works retreats at Haystack for faculty who have
taught there to experiment with new ideas and materials. I can't think
of any precedents for using clay as a stone set in gold, but I love the
color combination and the ability to have a large stone in a ring that
is about shape on the hand. Rings seem to be your thing. Do you want to discuss a little about how you make them and what you are after with your designs?
O'Hanrahan: I think of rings as being miniature abstract paintings.
They usually are of 18-karat or 22-karat gold which are alloys that will
change shape to some extent in response to being worn. So I see the
rings as a collaboration between the maker and the wearer. While I do
enjoy making rings, they are only part of what gets my attention. I also
have a strong interest in making bowls, spoons and small cups, both in
metal and in porcelain, all of which are represented in the exhibition
at Shibumi. The metal cups started with conversations two friends and I
would have at jazz nights at a local club, just casual but fun. I made
the cups in sets of two or three in related shapes but with a variation
in the sizes in response to the different people. The porcelain cups are
related to both conversations between friends and also to the Japanese
tea ceremony and the focus on and enjoyment of basic pleasures. You titled your show Geologica. Could you explain?
O'Hanrahan: The title refers to a group of objects that are based on
geological forms. The show consists of jewelry, small sake cups and
silver bowls made from porcelain, clay, silver, gold and semiprecious
and precious stones. The title suggests (I hope) of or from the earth. What are you reading currently?
Brigid O'Hanrahan: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, informal talks of Zen meditation and practice by Shunryu Suzuki and To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Wow, pretty heavy reading . . . What is your favorite book on jewelry?
Brigid O'Hanrahan: If I have to choose one it would be Brooching It Diplomatically: A Tribute to Madeleine K. Albright,
a catalogue of the exhibit by that name curated by Helen Drutt in 1998.
Madeleine Albright is brilliant in demonstrating how a partnership
between a wearer and a piece of jewelry can set the stage for a
Other books I love are Partytime by Robert Baines, Navajo Spoons by Cindra Kline and Breon O'Casey by Brian Fallon. Do you go the theater or movies and if so can you recommend a recent one you enjoyed?
Brigid O'Hanrahan: A movie: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I loved it! You
say, ‘I am drawn to the simplicity and beauty of everyday actions, and
make objects which shift attention to the activity of use, making the
object both functional and ceremonial.’ Can you explain a bit more about
how you see the ceremonial and the functional relating? Brigid
O'Hanrahan: This hard for me to explain and relates to my reading about
Zen approaches to actions. In the process of learning about working
with metal I have been interested in and learned to use lots of
processes – photoetching, electroforming, working with lathes, milling
machines, computer operated machines – and what I enjoy (maybe value is a
better word) the most are hand processes like sawing, filing,
soldering, hammering, sanding. I like to make translucent porcelain sake
cups (and other things) because I think of the people who will have a
conversation while holding them and sipping something – sake, tea,
whatever. I want to make opportunities for conversations to happen
because I want to have more conversations myself, something I usually
feel awkward doing. Would you say you are shy and that the
ceremonial use of jewelry or cups helps you to feel more comfortable
having a conversation?
Brigid O'Hanrahan: I'm laughing! Absolutely shy!
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