Recently, I sat down with April Higashi, founder of Shibumi Gallery in Berkeley, California. Founded in 1993, Shibumi Gallery is known for its uniquely curated space and for showcasing contemporary jewelry, fine art, and textiles. The phrase "shibumi" is a set of Japanese words that imply an "aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobstrusive beauty" (1).
April Higashi, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood
Olivia Shih: 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 Higashi: 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 challenging--the 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
OS: Is there an artist or a few artists who influenced you the most, whether it be in jewelry or life?
AH: 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.
OS: Both June and Susan are innovators in the contemporary jewelry field, but have you ever been inspired by artists in other mediums?
AH: 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
OS: 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?
AH: 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
OS: 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?
AH: 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 elements--accents 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: Shibumi Gallery
OS: 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?
AH: 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.
OS: And that’s just your morning?
AH: 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
OS: What are the most difficult challenges you have had with being an artist and gallery owner?
AH: 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.
OS: I have no idea how you do it, but you pull it off so beautifully. It’s been such an insightful interview, and thank you for talking with me.
April Higashi, Topography Ring ( Men's), 2015, silver,
mackel diamonds, 10mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery
Shibumi Gallery, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood
Find out more about Shibumi Gallery and its founder, April Higashi, here.
(1) Wikipedia contributors, "Shibui," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shibui&oldid=730217827 (accessed August 10, 2016).