Multiple Exposures Preview 37.5

PREVIEW

The rich interplay of jewelry and photography was recently shown at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. “Multiple Exposures: Jewelry and Photography” is the first survey and exploration between these two mediums.

The Danner Rotunda Preview 37.5

PREVIEW

Contemporary jewelry appears to be experiencing a groundswell of interest in the last few years in museum collections. The Danner Rotunda in the International Design Museum Munich is one example of the upwelling.

Protective Ornament Preview 37.5

PREVIEW

There is nothing like shielding and exhibiting yourself while wearing jewelry, depending on your viewpoint. Check out “Protective Ornament: Contemporary Amulets to Armor” now showing at the Tacoma Art Museum for how astonishing this can be.

Nubian Face Beads Preview 37.5

PREVIEW

Robert K. Liu, spurred on by last issue’s article “Gold and the Gods, Jewels of Ancient Nubia,” has researched Nubian mosaic tabular face beads and presents his findings on the unique tabular beads and what they might mean for ancient glassbeadmaking. Virtually all mosaic face beads of antiquity were of two types; a representation of Medusa as a Gorgon, and of Medusa as a woman. Originally thought to be different canes, the Nubian mosaic face beads suggest that one cane, that of Medusa as Gorgon, was used to make both types of beads.

Svatopluk Kasalý Preview 37.5

RINGS of ground Umaplex, 1980. Photograph by Tasas Kušcynskyj.

RINGS of ground Umaplex, 1980. Photograph by Tasas Kušcynskyj.

PREVIEW

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu visited this past summer with noted glass artist Svatopluk Kasalý where he lives and works in the small town of Trešt’ in the Czech Republic. The short but intensive meeting was an illuminating and refractive experience in itself. Through the lens of Kasalý’s work we find a sensual engagement with the world and a desire to improve upon it. Creativity, employed in this instance by Kasalý, adorns and expands ourselves and our environment, in a manner that takes the commodity of time and translates it into physical and material beauty. From the physical and material we are mentally inspired, and it is this joyous circle that Kasalý revels in.

Ebony Fashion Fair Preview 37.5

 
GIVENCHY by Alexander McQueen (France). Evening dress of synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze: appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions, Fall/Winter 1997-1998.

GIVENCHY by Alexander McQueen (France). Evening dress of synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze: appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions, Fall/Winter 1997-1998.

 

PREVIEW

Ashley Callahan takes us through the delightful experience of recreating the traveling show known as the Ebony Fashion Fair, which took place from high school gymnasiums in small towns to grand ballrooms in large cities. The audiences were composed of and targeted middle and upper-middle class African-American women. For its fifty years, there was never anything like it as it celebrated the beauty of the individual in its utterly unique presentations.
 

Hollywood Costume Volume 37.5

With all the hype, volume and special effects of a big-budget blockbuster, “Hollywood Costume” arrived in Los Angeles in October, concluding a world tour that began a year earlier at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

It is a very different exhibition than sold-out London audiences encountered; many of the iconic pieces seen there (and in the coffee-table-busting catalogue by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who organized the show) were not able to cross the pond because of their fragility, such as Holly Golightly’s little black Givenchy dress. Vivien Leigh’s green velvet curtain ensemble from Gone With The Wind was already committed to a different exhibition; another spectacular green gown—worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement—is also missing in action. However, more than forty pieces were added for the Los Angeles installation, including costumes from The Great Gatsby—the 2013 Oscar winner for costume design—and a certain pair of ruby slippers owned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is hosting the show in its new exhibition space at the historic Wilshire May Company Building.

There are one hundred fifty costumes in total, and less might have been more. True showstoppers are mixed in with unmemorable costumes from forgettable films like Closer, John Carter and One True Thing. The galleries are so densely packed that mannequins are hidden behind other mannequins, or behind video screens, tripods and computer-animated projections; more often than not, the technology gets in the way of the objects, literally as well as metaphorically. It does not help that the galleries are pitch black, selectively lit by spotlights. The effect is one of walking into a darkened movie theater—appropriate, but not easy viewing. A swelling musical score composed for the show by Julian Scott adds to the sensory overload.

With a costume designer at the helm, the show feels staged rather than curated—calculated for visual impact, not narrative logic. Some of the cinematic touches succeed brilliantly. Spiderman climbs the wall; a phalanx of Queen Elizabeth costumes glitter before a montage of her various film incarnations. Famous directors and their costume collaborators converse on life-sized screens: Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell, Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood, Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis. A suite of costumes from Ocean’s Eleven—surrounding an animated “desk” on which the costume designer’s notes and sketches shuffle around—neatly demonstrates how to differentiate between characters in an ensemble while creating a unified look. (Too bad many of the mannequins were hidden by the desk.) Similarly, a group of ten costumes belonging to Meryl Streep (a costume design major in college) illustrates Edith Head’s remark: “We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s become a different person.” Costume is not wholly responsible for this transformation, but it plays a starring role. As Streep’s longtime costume designer Ann Roth says about their fittings: “We wait for the third person to arrive.”

Other filmic flourishes are failed experiments, at best. Videos transposing familiar characters into incongruous settings and costumes come across as heavy-handed and silly at the same time. Mannequins have headshots instead of heads. Didactic labels look like pages torn from a script, and consist entirely of dialogue-like quotations from costume designers, actors and directors. Some of these reveal juicy tidbits; after reading that No Country For Old Men costume designer Mary Zophres wanted Anton Chigurh’s cowboy boots “to look like a weapon,” it is impossible to see them as anything else. Others are maddeningly vague, or have nothing to do with the costume on display; a description of Kim Novak’s iconic gray Vertigo suit accompanies an entirely different suit, worn by a different actress. All the labels are difficult to read in the dark. Despite the obvious investment in cutting-edge technology, there are several missed opportunities. Issues like the transitions from silent films to talkies and from black and white to color; the double-edged sword of historical accuracy; and the need for multiple copies of the same costume are raised in the labels, but not borne out by the objects on display or the interpretive gadgetry.

This is not a retrospective of Hollywood’s Golden Age; historic pieces are few and far between, with costumes from more contemporary, crowd-pleasing films dominating the lineup. The exhibition claims to “celebrate 100 years of cinema,” but it mainly celebrates the last two or three decades. This partially testifies to the sad fate that befell many costumes when MGM and 20th Century Fox sold off their wardrobe department archives in the seventies; other studios never kept their costumes in the first place. Security in the galleries is tight, a reminder that the same garments that were once considered disposable are now worth millions. The most valuable pieces—the ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch dress—are displayed behind glass.

Thanks to private collectors, many classic costumes were rescued from the dustbin of history. Thus, Travis Banton’s mint green, bias-cut, satin Cleopatra gown for Colette Colbert stands alongside one of the sixty-five gowns Irene Sharaff designed for Elizabeth Taylor to wear in the 1963 version. Hedy Lamarr’s costume from 1949’s Sampson and Delilah is here; Edith Head decorated it with hundreds of peacock feathers Cecil B. DeMille collected personally on his ranch, where he raised the birds. But some of the most interesting costumes are the most modern and least flashy, like Jason Bourne’s “functional and forgettable” gray windbreaker. The logo on a humble Gap sweatshirt from The Social Network reads PAG, because it was worn in a scene shot using mirrors to recreate an unavailable location. Tucked among the superheroes and aliens is a gray motion capture suit—a grim preview of what Hollywood costume exhibitions of the future might look like.

With its mix of iconic costumes, classic and contemporary, and its high-tech wizardry, it is easy to see why “Hollywood Costume” was a smash hit in London. Whether it will impress a more jaded L.A. crowd remains to be seen. For better or for worse, though, the tourists are going to love it. They have until March 2, 2015 to check it out.

Kiff Slemmons Volume 37.5

Framed by silver bezels darkened to resemble wrought iron or blue steel, exquisitely knapped stone projectile points serve as tacit evidence that the drive to perfect technologies is hardly exclusive to the modern age. In Kiff Slemmons’s most recent work a respect not only for the skills of ancient artisans but also, and more important, for the adherence of those artisans to the highest of aspirations for their craft makes what might have been mere whimsical appropriation a moving reflection on some of the most praiseworthy facets of human nature. The series pays homage to ingenuity and adroitness, but more significantly it gives due recognition to the value of human patience and persistence: specifically, the dogged determination to achieve perfection that has invigorated human endeavor since the days when life truly was nasty, brutish and short. By giving a prominent place in her pendants to ancient stone artifacts and restraining her contributions to a complementary status, Slemmons is clearly less intent on emphasizing her own mastery of materials than on asserting that humans have always sought a better way—a more efficient technology and a more pleasing aesthetic—even millennia ago when their efforts were by necessity directed principally to the task of staying alive.

Through her use of ancient objects Slemmons courts controversy in this period of heightened concern for preserving cultural patrimony, but her practice is not without substantial precedent in the long history of jewelrymaking. The earliest people to recycle antiquities were the ancients themselves, who in their wanderings through the campsites, burial grounds and ruined cities of their forebears scavenged bits of the past to employ as tools, wear as ornaments, or simply marvel over as incontrovertible evidence that the present was not allencompassing. How many Egyptians over the millennia between the Old Kingdom and the New donned ancient amulets lifted from the shifting sands at Saqqara or extracted from the silt of the Nile after the annual flood? In the Americas, the Aztecs, in awe of the vast deserted architecture of Teotihuacán, made pendants of the figurine fragments they discovered in that crumbling city’s empty plazas, and in Europe the stylish set during the Renaissance repurposed ancient Roman seals and cameos as gems in their rings and necklaces. In these and countless other instances across human history the reuse of antiquities as adornments was clearly more than expedient. In the most interesting cases it might even be said to reflect a psychological imperative to wrestle with some of the most fundamental questions about human identity.

Caches excavated at archaeological sites around the world suggest that ceremony may indeed have been part of the purpose of some ancient stone points, but those in Slemmons’s pendants, found by Tuareg nomads after strong Saharan winds exposed them, can give no clue as to their former contexts.

 
DOUBLE AX KIT double-sided pendants of silver, stone, Eskimo tool fragments, 10.80 x 8.26 centimeters.

DOUBLE AX KIT double-sided pendants of silver, stone, Eskimo tool fragments, 10.80 x 8.26 centimeters.

 Prior to the mid-1980s and the passage of laws against exportation of antiquities by nations such as Mali, Niger and Algeria hundreds of thousands of Neolithic Saharan artifacts were gathered by tribesmen and sold to local suppliers of galleries and auction houses in Europe and the United States. At no stage in this process of dispersion were records of origin kept, and little thought was given to the effects of the market on the cultural inheritance of North African nations and the connection between contemporary Saharan peoples and their ancient predecessors. For Slemmons these objects without context have lost something valuable that, though not restorable, might at least be partly replaced. “I have a real respect for these things,” she asserts, “and I wanted to reinvigorate them by putting them in this other context. In a way I think of this as a kind of offering. We don’t honor our ancestors much these days. Everything is about what is new and now. I’m looking backwards in a sense.”

SECATEUR of silver, stone, bone, rusted can lid, 7.62 x 8.89 centimeters.

SECATEUR of silver, stone, bone, rusted can lid, 7.62 x 8.89 centimeters.

For Slemmons, integration of Neolithic stonework into jewelry was a natural extension of the found-object use that had characterized her work from its earliest phase, but at the same time it constituted something of a departure from that practice, since not all found objects are of the same class. Age and rarity make the projectile points substantially different from pencil stubs that one might find at the back of a drawer, but more important the Neolithic points bear evidence of attitudes about tools and making that seem fundamentally different from those conveyed by a sharpened pencil. “I decided that these were another kind of found material,” Slemmons explains. “I was taken with the points themselves, the refinement in making them, and the fact that they were handmade things. They were tools but you couldn’t help but see that they had slipped over into something else, that when the makers were making them they saw them as beautiful in some way, so they kept them and didn’t use them. They were tools made by hand that at some point slipped partly from necessity to ceremony.”

The retrospection embodied by Slemmons’s new series is really twofold, since it is as much about looking back over her own career as about prying secrets of the early days of human history from the craftsmanship exhibited by ancient stone tools. Her recent pendants are in some respects similar to pieces that she made at the outset of her career forty-five years ago. Not only did some of those early examples incorporate ancient stone beads from Mexico but they also made use of simple bezels fashioned with the same set of hand tools that grace her bench today. The technical similarities between past and present work were unintentional, and when she first noted them they gave her pause. “In some ways I was distressed to find that I seemed to be making things similar to when I first started,” she admits, “but I tried not to linger on that too long. I have to do what has some energy for me. There are many people who can make much better products, but I have never been concerned about showing off techniques in metal. My progression has been more about the flow of ideas.”

CUTTING EDGES of silver and stone, 10.80 x 5.08 centimeters.

CUTTING EDGES of silver and stone, 10.80 x 5.08 centimeters.

In that respect Slemmons’s recent pendants have their closest connections to bodies of work produced for the exhibitions “Cuts and Repose” (1998) and “Re:Pair and Imperfection” (2004-5). The former involved integrating into jewelry images of hands cut from antique black-and-white photographs of unidentified individuals: found-objects that like anonymous Neolithic stone tools emphasized the absence of people whose personalities, familial connections, achievements in diplomacy, war, intellectual pursuits or athletics, social standing, hopes, and fears—nearly everything that made them unique in the world—had been lost in the passage of time. After some initial deliberation about cutting up the photographs, which had once been treasured mementos displayed on mantelpieces or preserved in family albums, Slemmons concluded that the opportunity to reinvest them with meaning in the present outweighed what little value they possessed as decontextualized and anonymous documents of the past. She recalls, “When I realized that their preciousness depended on their identity and that this identity had already been lost, abandoned, the possibility for a new presence eased my reluctance and I began to look at the hands to see what they said.”

 
STONES AND WHORLS neckpiece of silver, Guatemalan clay spindles, stone, 30.48 x 16.51 x 1.27 centimeters.

STONES AND WHORLS neckpiece of silver, Guatemalan clay spindles, stone, 30.48 x 16.51 x 1.27 centimeters.

As historical records, Neolithic stone points share some important characteristics with the found-object photographs in “Cuts and Repose,” but they differ in that their representation of anonymous hands from the past is not pictorial but rather indexical: in other words they refer to hands through the physical evidence of work. As handiwork they have entered Slemmons’s pendants less through appropriation than through collaboration. To some degree this act recalls pieces that Slemmons produced a decade ago for the Re:Pair and Imperfection series, which began with solicitation of damaged or unfinished parts from dozens of well-known jewelers and metalsmiths and ended with the production of works of jewelry in which contributing artists’ elements were complemented by a kind of framing or contextualizing on Slemmons’s part. This kind of collaboration differs fundamentally from that of such modernist examples as Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, which implicitly emphasized the triumph of painterly expression over an anonymous hand-stitched quilt, or Erased De Kooning drawing, in which the erasure of a sketch simultaneously displaced the presence of one prominent artist while asserting the negating powers of another. Slemmons found-object collaborations are equally distinct from the appropriationist strategies of deconstructive postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s, in which the presence of artists was not so much erased as dismissed from the outset as a mere intellectual construct.


Slemmons’s frequent use of the word “respect” when describing her affinity for prehistoric artifacts suggests that in her recent series of pendants, as in the earlier Re:Pair and Imperfection works, the collaborative process has more in common with the reverent recycling of artifacts by the Aztecs than with contemporary polemics over such concepts as originality, representation, or presence. “I’m arguing for the physicality of these things,” she says of the Neolithic points. “They were made by the hand and used in the hand, and the connection with the hand matters to me. I’m continuously attracted by the power of small things. I’m not saying that we need to go back to making things by hand, but I think that there’s a respect for handmade things that we might be losing.”

VERSATILITY of silver, stone points and spoon, hinged allowing different positions when worn (like folding knives), 5.08 x 6.35 centimeters.

VERSATILITY of silver, stone points and spoon, hinged allowing different positions when worn (like folding knives), 5.08 x 6.35 centimeters.

While the stone points were small enough to fit in the hand, worked with such finesse as to recall sophisticated forms of decorative art, and free of any chips that would indicate actual use in the field, Slemmons could not overlook the fact that their intended purpose was to kill. Ultimately, her attempts to reconcile this realization with her attraction to the objects as historical embodiments of early human achievement in technology, and even a form of art, would affect the compositions into which she integrated them. Regarding them abstractly as implements for cutting, she began thinking of ways “to repurpose them as other kinds of tools.” Positioned as blades of shears, snips, and saws, axe heads, and even an abalone shucker, the points are integrated into Slemmons’s pendants in such a way that they retain their original identities but gain conceptual value from their reemployment in representations of tools. As objects functioning only in an imagistic and ornamental sense, the tool-pendants become frames that encourage the viewer to consider the Neolithic stone points as Slemmons sees them: not merely as ancient objects intended for the hunt but also, and more important, as reflections of a discerning sense of the aesthetics inherent in highly refined utilitarian form.

There is often an undeniable beauty to parts of functional objects intended for killing—the intricately etched steel blade of a saber, or the sleek, blue-gray barrel of a firearm, for instance. For Slemmons, this quality in the Neolithic artifacts was to some degree disturbing, but she recognized that it could be contextualized to elicit more positive associations. “I was thinking about the killing of animals for food and survival and linking survival with ceremony,” she explains. “I thought of serving up the work like a feast in some way, an ancestral feast.” Consequently, some of the tool-pendants took the form of place settings in which more mundane utensils became, for example, a silver spoon with a corner-notched projectile point embedded at the junction of bowl and neck, a knife with a leaf-shaped Neolithic point for a blade, and a fork with trident-like tines fashioned from a trio of contracting-stemmed triangular stone points. These evocative utensil-pendants have proved to display effectively, both visually and conceptually, alongside handmade paper bowls, products of Slemmons’s recent experiences with craftspeople in Oaxaca, Mexico. What, after all, could be more appropriate for work that is implicitly collaborative with anonymous ancient ancestors than the context of a table reverently set for a convention of artists in absentia?

Joan Tenenbaum Volume 37.5

Joan Tenenbaum’s cuff bracelet called Salmon in the Trees is a striking piece of jewelry. It is also an artful reminder that the ecology of our natural world hangs in easily disrupted balance. The sterling silver cuff is cut and engraved to show a dense Northwest forest inhabited, delightfully, by glistening copper-colored salmon that seem to be swimming through the trees. In the notes she wrote to accompany this 2011 piece, Tenenbaum explained that in the rainforests of Southwest Alaska salmon return to the streams where they were born and along the way many become food for eagles, bears and other predators. The predators digest the salmon and their droppings fertilize the lush streamside foliage and the forest trees. Salmon, the kings of the sea, and old-growth forests may seem worlds apart, but they are in fact dependent on each other for survival.

“Perhaps more than any other species salmon connect the oceans with the land,” Tenenbaum says. Salmon need the cool, shaded nesting spots to breed, and the bears, for instance, need to fatten up on the salmon in the late summer to survive winter hibernation. “The tightness of this web of interconnections is so vital and so fragile—paralleling the fragility of our indigenous languages and cultures—this kind of poignancy moves me to make pieces with these deep layers of meaning.”

Jewelry infused with environmental and cultural content is Tenenbaum’s signature as an artist. Virtually every brooch, neckpiece, bracelet, or ring she has made in the last thirty-five years is grounded not only in precise craftsmanship but also in her deep love of Alaska, its native cultures and its awe-inspiring natural beauty. Tenenbaum has created brooches that are abstracted aerial views of Alaska deltas, tidelands and mountain peaks. She has taken inspiration from traditional Yup’ik ceremonial masks. And she has made a series of “ulu knife” brooches that incisively symbolize the traditionally close relationship between Native cultures and the environment. An ulu knife is an all-purpose cutting knife shaped like a wide slice of pie that, in traditional culture, is an Eskimo woman’s tool for preparing food, cleaning meat and all manner of other domestic tasks necessary for survival. Tenenbaum also made real ulu knives, uses one in her kitchen and has given them as wedding gifts.

“I saw early on that ulu knives in the tourist shops in Alaska were worthless as useful knives, and I had seen how people in the villages made their ulus which they use every day. So I decided to learn how to make them. Considering that the development of the design of the ulu over the centuries was based on the work that needed to be done with it, it really does connect the culture to the land.”

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: OUR LAND, OUR ANCESTORS brooch/pendant of sterling silver, copper, eighteen karat gold, 5.87 x 6.19 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: OUR LAND, OUR ANCESTORS brooch/pendant of sterling silver, copper, eighteen karat gold, 5.87 x 6.19 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

Trained as a linguist and an anthropologist, Tenenbaum did field work in Alaska in her late twenties while working on her doctoral thesis. She lived in a remote village and wrote a grammar and a dictionary for the Dena’ina language, which was the language then still spoken by the villagers. After her first years of field research she lived in other native villages and worked to help young native Alaskan adults become teachers. Tenenbaum earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in anthropology and linguistics in 1978, but it is fair to say that since she first set foot in Alaska as a young researcher, she has never really left. Physically and spiritually, Alaska has been Tenenbaum’s touchstone for nearly forty years.

Tenenbaum’s life as a jewelrymaker, however, started well before her introduction to Alaska. The arc of her career is an unusual dual path of art and academia that, some decades ago, serendipitously merged into an art career fueled by her academic experiences. As an adolescent growing up in the suburbs of Detroit her parents stressed academics. Yet despite a full schedule of college preparatory classes, in the ninth grade Tenenbaum found a class period open for an elective. “So I signed up for something called craft. I liked to do things with my hands and it sounded interesting. For a year we did block printing, some silversmithing, enameling. I loved it.” She was particularly fascinated by jewelry, and for the next four years she took classes from a well-trained teacher who taught her the fundamentals. Before she left high school in 1963 Tenenbaum had won awards for her work.

RAVEN AND CARIBOU: A DENA’INA STORY pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat gold and garnets, 6.03 x 8.26 x 0.64 centimeters, 2007.

RAVEN AND CARIBOU: A DENA’INA STORY pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat gold and garnets, 6.03 x 8.26 x 0.64 centimeters, 2007.

Looking back on her early love of jewelry, Tenenbaum says it was odd that no one suggested she attend an art school after high school graduation. Then again, her father was a chemical engineer, a metallurgist to be exact, and her mother was a teacher. They expected her to be a teacher, or perhaps a translator at the United Nations. Scholarship and academics were very important to her parents. She laughs when she notes that the only artist in the family when she was young was a relative called “crazy Esther.” A life in art was obviously not something to aspire to. “So my plan was to be a Spanish teacher. I was good with languages and was always friends with the foreign exchange students.” As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Tenenbaum studied romance languages and literature before switching to anthropology. After class and during summer breaks she continued to make jewelry and take workshops to learn new skills. Art was strictly extracurricular.

Later there were occasions when the road ahead forked into very different directions. That happened in the late 1960s in New York, where she was employed as a caseworker for the city welfare department and taking classes in silversmithing at the Craft Students League.

Her teacher was William Seitz, a master silversmith who wrote one of the definitive books on silversmithing. She had applied to graduate school at Columbia University, but was also making jewelry. “I had been accepted to graduate school, and had decided to put my tools away for a while when I got a call from a gallery on Fifth Avenue that wanted to show my jewelry. Someone there had seen it at the Craft Students League. I said no. I was determined to get my Ph.D. But it wasn’t an easy decision.”

FEASTS OF TRADITION brooch/pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat yellow, pink and palladium white gold, eighteen karat green gold, keum-boo, champagne diamond, red, blue, orange, and green sapphires, 6.99 x 6.03 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

FEASTS OF TRADITION brooch/pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat yellow, pink and palladium white gold, eighteen karat green gold, keum-boo, champagne diamond, red, blue, orange, and green sapphires, 6.99 x 6.03 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

Within a few years she was living in Alaska with Athabaskan Indians and researching the Dena’ina language. She worked in a village for two years and it was the only time when she did not have her jewelry tools with her. When she moved to Fairbanks to finish her dissertation she asked her dad to send her tools from Detroit and she enrolled in jewelry courses at the University of Alaska. “In Fairbanks I was tortured by my burning desire to make jewelry. I felt I was in a cage and the door was the dissertation. Once I got the dissertation done, I could make jewelry.” Tenenbaum finished her dissertation, which she knew would be helpful in preserving the Dena’ina language, or at least in preserving its grammar and vocabulary. She also recorded, translated and edited twenty-four traditional native stories translated into an English language volume. Tenenbaum says it was a way “to give back to the people in the village.” The book was published by the Alaskan Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, and it is now in its third printing. All royalties go to the Language Center.

RAVEN IN FLIGHT: THE SEEN AND UNSEEN necklace of sterling silver, 19.69 x 16.51 x 0.64 x 45.72 centimeters, 2009.

RAVEN IN FLIGHT: THE SEEN AND UNSEEN necklace of sterling silver, 19.69 x 16.51 x 0.64 x 45.72 centimeters, 2009.

After a trip to New York to defend her thesis, Tenenbaum was back in Alaska. She got a job distance teaching for the University of Alaska, which meant living in Eskimo villages. She needed the money from teaching and she wanted to help train native teachers, but the work was challenging. “Many of my students lived in villages with no electricity or running water. They were working as teachers’ aides, but it was difficult for them to keep studying. Not everyone made it through.” Despite her own demanding teaching schedule, Tenenbaum continued to make jewelry. “And all of a sudden mountains started appearing in my work. It was exciting. I decided to resign at the end of the year. I had to be a jeweler.”

In the early 1980s she married a lawyer and moved to Anchorage with him to pursue jewelry full time. Because his family was from Portland, Oregon, she often visited Portland, where she met a skilled jeweler named Stewart Jones. He agreed to give her private tutorials on a periodic basis and Tenenbaum describes Jones “as my mentor since 1985. He’s one of the reasons I can do the things I do in my jewelry.” One of the hallmarks of Tenenbaum’s career has been her relentless study of techniques and her desire to continually learn and grow as a maker. To this day she continues to take courses from master jewelers including many of the Northwest’s most acclaimed craftspeople.

Her techniques include cloisonné enameling, engraving, chasing, repoussé, forging, roller texturing, foldforming, mokume gane, stone-setting, silver and goldsmithing. Although Tenenbaum never had the opportunity to study art or jewelry as a college student, it is obvious she loves learning. “I’ve always wanted to expand my techniques, because then I can tell more stories.”

When her marriage broke up in 1990 Tenenbaum moved to Washington State, where she owned property. Today she lives in Gig Harbor, a picturesque town about an hour southwest of Seattle that, with its harbor surrounded by towering evergreens and mountain peaks, could easily be a small city in Alaska. In her house on a quiet cul-de-sac she has turned her yard into a lush vegetable garden and her dining room into a large, sunfilled work studio. It is here that she keeps the extraordinary archives of her work, including hardbound notebooks detailing the creation of every piece of jewelry she has ever made, complete with the amount of metal needed for each piece and preparatory sketches. As a linguist she learned to keep excellent records and cross references, and as artist she has applied the same systematic cataloguing and note-taking to her work archives.

Tenenbaum dates her professional career from 1985, when she was in a group show at Stonington Gallery in Anchorage. At about the same time she used her engraving skills to start adding images of animals to her jewelry. “So then I started to bring my Alaskan anthropology experience and my jewelry together. I could add caribou, migrating birds, fish. It brought more environmentalism to my work.”

Her first solo exhibition was also at Stonington, in 1990. Since then she has had ten solo exhibitions at Stonington’s Seattle gallery, which specializes in indigenous art. Given the themes of her work, it is perhaps no surprise that several pieces of her jewelry have been added to the permanent collection of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.

The names of her solo exhibits are telling. In 2004 she called her Stonington exhibition “The Yup’ik Family: Spirit and Connection.” In 2008 the show theme was “Connecting Culture with Landscape.” In 2001 it was “A Sense of Place—The Ways we Connect to Our Earth.” In 2013 after she took a workshop in cloisonné, she added color to her work. A bracelet called Tundra Patterns I is a Google Earth view of the patch of Southwestern Alaskan tundra, reimagined in shimmering green and red enamel.

HERON IN WETLANDS brooch of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, Australian greenstone, green sapphire, 6.35 x 4.45 x 0.79 centimeters, 2009.

HERON IN WETLANDS brooch of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, Australian greenstone, green sapphire, 6.35 x 4.45 x 0.79 centimeters, 2009.

Her Bunchberry Necklace has an almost Victorian look. It is a medallion of vibrant green, white and red cloisonné bunchberries surrounded by smaller, colorful beads. Bunchberries, which are part of the cornus family, are low growing, common shrubs in parts of southern Alaska and their berries are important food for deer and other animals. This year Tenenbaum’s Stonington exhibition, “Fifty Playful Things,” was about challenges in creating line through folding, hammering, annealing, and other metal techniques.

Her connection to Alaska, its people and environment is so plainly interpreted in her work, that it is hard to imagine what Tenenbaum’s jewelry might have looked like if, nearly fifty years ago, she had entered a university art program instead of anthropology. “I may have felt extremely frustrated for many years, but in no way do I regret either my education or the amazing experience of living in Native Alaskan communities and being accepted and loved by them. It has enriched my life beyond words. I can’t imagine what my work might look like had I not gone to Alaska, or what my life might look like either.”

OWL MASK SPIRIT HELPER bracelet of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, 4.13 x 6.99 x 6.67 centimeters, 2008.

OWL MASK SPIRIT HELPER bracelet of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, 4.13 x 6.99 x 6.67 centimeters, 2008.