Posted on Thursday, July 18, 2013 by Matthew Harrison Tedford
This year, the San Francisco metal arts and jewelry gallery Velvet da Vinci celebrates its 23rd anniversary. Its cofounders, CCA alumnus Mike Holmes (Jewelry / Metal Arts 1984) and his business partner Elizabeth Shypertt, originally met in 1984 in a studio class at the de Young Museum.
Both had had some success selling their jewelry work independently, and it seemed like a natural idea to start a gallery to capitalize on that momentum.
"We found this wonderful little storefront in Hayes Valley," Holmes remembers. "The smallest one on the sunny side of Hayes Street!" It was a fortuitous moment: just after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake had damaged the Central Freeway there, but before the freeway had actually been torn down and rents started to rise.
(The name "Velvet da Vinci," in case you are wondering, was inspired by an old Perry Mason television episode.)
Holmes wasn't too many years out of CCA, and he'd been entering and getting into various juried shows, including the Metalsmiths Fair at Fort Mason. "We started making money . . . very modestly." Things were also going well for him at UCSF, where he was holding down a part-time job to subsidize the gallery. "In those early years, that was how we stayed open."
Then in 1994, he was forced to make a life-changing decision. His UCSF bosses wanted him to work more hours and said, "You have to choose between your business and your job here."
"I told them, 'I'm sorry, but I'm going to go with my business.' It was the best thing I ever did."
In its early years, Velvet da Vinci mostly showed local jewelers that Holmes met through the Metal Arts Guild. Some of them are still with the gallery, including Deborah Lozier, who has taught at CCA since 1994.
Then, after a few years, Holmes and Shypertt began to expand internationally, first working with the British Crafts Council.
"That changed the whole direction of the gallery. It was the beginning of our new ambition to showcase developments in contemporary jewelry around the world. We've become more sophisticated over the years about what we can do."
Over the next two decades, their stature grew enormously, and they now represent artists from the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Japan. As a perfect example of how they've grown in reputation, Holmes points to Velvet da Vinci's inclusion in The Rough Guide to San Francisco and the Louis Vuitton City Guide San Francisco.
The British Museum bought three pieces for its permanent collection from Velvet da Vinci's 2003 exhibition Anti-War Medals, and the Imperial War Museums purchased five. It is one of only three American galleries featured in the recent Telegraph article "The World's Best Contemporary Jewellery Shops."
From Geography to Jewelry
Holmes was first introduced to CCA as a junior high student. His art teacher was Sylvia Stevens. "She was that teacher everyone remembers -- the one who really noticed and nurtured you," Holmes reminisces. She was also a recent graduate of CCA and "was constantly talking about it. I was one of her best students!" he says with a laugh.
After high school, Holmes headed north to study at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. His academic advisor happened to be Ronald Senungetuk, an important Inuit jeweler. While Holmes pursued his degree in geography he almost completed enough studio art courses to earn a second degree in art (and would have, if not for the art history classes he didn't want to take).
"Senungetuk loved the fact that I studied art and science at the same time." But even with a Fulbright jeweler as his advisor, by the time he had graduated, Holmes had never taken a class in jewelry.
Dirk van Erp and the Arts and Crafts Legacy
After college he returned to the Bay Area and picked up an eccentric little hobby: He began collecting Dirk van Erp copperwork. Van Erp was a prominent early-20th-century Bay Area metalsmith and an active participant in the Arts and Crafts movement; he would have moved in the same artistic circles as Frederick Meyer and the founding faculty of CCA, and probably knew them well.
The historical record is murky as to whether van Erp actually taught at the college, but he was definitely connected to it, given that he took out an ad for his shop in an early CCA yearbook.
At some point during his van Erp collecting project, Holmes thought to himself, "I think I could do this!" He began researching schools where he might study metal arts. He immediately remembered Ms. Stevens and her praise of CCA. In the end, he was won over not only by the passion of his junior high art teacher, but also by CCA's emphasis on craft.
He fondly remembers studying with the late Marty Streich and Florence Resnikoff. Resnikoff was then chair of the program and a founder of the Metal Arts Guild of the Bay Area. Holmes held a part-time job as her tech while he studied at CCA.
Velvet da Vinci Today
Holmes points to the gallery's La Frontera exhibition as a perfect example of the state of Velvet da Vinci today. This international group exhibition of political jewelry was organized in conjunction with the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City, where it opened before traveling to San Francisco/ (It will be on view here from August 14 to September 15, 2013.)
The show made a huge splash in Mexico as well as internationally, and has already been featured in Time Out México, Vogue México, Univision, and Spain's El País.
Bay Area and CCA Connections
Velvet da Vinci remains deeply connected to the Bay Area. "We're pretty lucky," Holmes says of San Francisco. "There's a really vibrant and viable jewelry scene here."
Now located in a former furniture factory at 2015 Polk Street in Russian Hill, the gallery organizes 10 to 12 exhibitions a year. It shows the work of numerous CCA alumni:
Elisa Bongfeldt (Jewelry / Metal Arts 1994)
Karen Gilbert (Jewelry / Metal Arts 1994)
Garry Knox Bennett (Sculpture 1961)
Diane Komater (BFA 1983)
Orfeo Quagliata (Wood/Furniture 1999)
Kay Sekimachi (Textiles 1955)
Sayumi Yokouchi (Jewelry / Metal Arts 1996)
Holmes and Reflection 100 at CCA
Look for Holmes to guest lecture at CCA in the fall as part of Reflection 100, a yearlong series of events, exhibitions, and lectures hosted by the Jewelry / Metal Arts Program.