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