Artist Profile

A conversation with Joan Tenenbaum

A linguist, an anthropologist, an award-winning jeweler, an artist, and a poet, Joan Tenenbaum fuses her technical, intellectual, and creative abilities into jewelry that is imbued with beauty, spirituality, and mystery. Her work consists of detailed, culture-and nature-inspired wearable pieces that she fabricates using precious metals and gemstones. We're pleased to share the celebration of our fifth anniversary with Tenenbaum, who is celebrating her fiftieth year of making jewelry. —HLW

You started making jewelry when you were 13. Did you consider studying jewelry in college, or was that not a serious option at the time?

I went to art school in the summer between high school and college. But my parents — though they were supportive of my jewelry, in that they bought my tools and materials and encouraged me, they treated my jewelry making as a hobby; they never considered it a career path. The only other artist in my family lived in New York and was referred to as "Crazy Esther." I didn't know I could get a degree in metalsmithing.

After finishing my bachelor's, I took 3 years off and studied silversmithing at the Craft Students League in New York, then went back to school and got my doctorate in anthropology and linguistics. When I was doing my research for my dissertation, I went straight from New York City to the wilderness of Alaska.

I imagine that was a huge culture shock.

Yes and no. The people were so hospitable and welcoming. I was struck by how vast everything was — the mountains and the rivers and the sky. The first month, I spent kayaking in Prince William Sound on a wilderness course. We were completely in the wild. There was no pipeline at that time, so Prince William Sound was just pristine. The first week, we beached our kayaks in this particular cove, and I climbed up the hill and looked at the view, and I had a profound sense of being home. I knew I was going to stay. Alaska grows on you. In fact, the piece I'm designing today is called It Leaves an Impression on You.

I expected Alaska to be huge. But it started to affect me in my self. When you're in a place that's that big, that open, and that expansive, your own personal being starts to expand. That's what started to happen to me.

What was your day-to-day life like there?

I had to find a language that had not been documented and a place where it was still a living language, and live there and document the language. I narrowed it down to one village, where there were about 75 speakers of the language, and I lived there for 2 years. I lived in a tar-paper shack, like the people did. There was no running water, the mail plane came about twice a week. At the end of 2 years, I went to Fairbanks, where there was a university and other linguist colleagues.

The 2 years I spent in the village were the only 2 years in my life that I didn't have my jewelry tools with me. When I arrived in Fairbanks, I had my tools sent to me, and I started making jewelry again, and oh, I missed it so much!

How did you make the jump to full-time jewelry making?

I knew in my heart that I wanted to make jewelry as my life, I just didn't know how to go about doing it. I told everyone that when I finished my dissertation I was going to make jewelry. But a colleague said, "Well, Joan, are you ready to go to Shishmaref? There's a job there for you if you want it." And I said, "I'm going to make jewelry; I don't want a yob!" But I had no money, I didn't know how I was going to live. So I took the job, which was in a program to train Native students to be teachers.

I resigned that job after a year. I went to visit a friend in a little Eskimo village in southwest Alaska. I fell in love with the place and the people. The language, Yup'ik, was alive and spoken all around me, even by the children. As a linguist, I was thrilled to hear it. I decided to stay there and have all my tools shipped to me and live there and make jewelry.

A few months into that, I got a letter from the community college in the region; they asked me to coordinate classes in two different villages. After 4 years doing that, I decided, "I have to make jewelry full time." That was the third time I was going to resign a job to make jewelry. And I knew if I didn't do it then, I wouldn't do it.

How does anthropology relate to jewelry making?

They relate within me. I want to tell those stories. I want to tell the world about the cultures and the practices and the beliefs of

[A] Whose Woods These Are pendant. Sterling silver, 24k gold, Sonora plume agate, dichroic glass, spinel, boulder opal, blue moonstone. 2Vs in. (73 mm) high. [B] Raven and Caribou: A Dena'ina Story pendant. Sterling silver, 14k gold, garnets. 27s (60 mm) high. [C] Raven Steals the Light necklace. Sterling silver, Mexican matrix opal, champagne diamond, opal and black onyx beads, silk. 33/s in. (86 mm) high. [D] I Am My Landscape brooch. Sterling and reticulation silver, copper, keum boo. VA in. (44 mm) high. [E] Glaciers Bead I. Sterling silver, 14k gold, copper, mokume gane (copper/sterling), diamonds, citrine, sapphire. VA in. (29 mm) wide. All photos by Doug Yaple.

those people. And that's the way I can tell it. Most anthropologists write scholarly articles and books. I'm doing the same sort of thing through my jewelry.

The center of anthropology is participant observation; you are a member of the community, and you're observing at the same time. I had an intense experience, especially in the last village where I lived. I've been going back there for over 30 years — it's the place that I had the most profound connection to and the people I had the deepest relationships with. It's like the jewelry — I keep going back because it's the thing I feel most deeply about.

What I tell in my jewelry are the stories of the Native people. My message is our connection to the earth. The people that I lived with, all three cultural groups I lived with, have never left their ancestral lands, they've never been moved from their ancestral lands. So the people there have a direct and intimate connection with their landscape.

There are visual references to stories of the people of Alaska in much of your work. How necessary is knowing those stories when viewing your work?

I see myself as a translator and a storyteller. The early masks were translations of original masks. The pieces I'm doing now, for the last 10 years or so, are my own creations. I sometimes use imagery from the cultures, but I'm telling my own stories based on my own experiences and the life of the people. The pieces stand on their own. I intend them to be beautiful first, and then tell a story.

Can you talk about some of the symbols you use, like the raven and the caribou?

The raven has extreme importance as a spiritual animal in the northern cultures. In Alaska, the raven is everywhere. And it always seemed to speak to me; it feels like my spiritual animal. For several of the cultures, the caribou keeps them alive. Food, clothes, tools, everything comes from the caribou.

Can you share one of the stories that inspire your pieces?

The Foggy Woman story is my favorite story that I recorded. A young man encounters a young woman out on the mountains when he's hunting. They fall in love. He wants to bring her home to his village, and she keeps saying no. Finally, she says yes. He brings her back to the camp. As soon as she arrives, the weather gets foggy and rainy, day after day. The people can't go out to hunt because of the fog, and they start to run out of food. They both realize it's because of her. They wrap up their baby in a blanket and walk up the mountain. They reach a point, and she says, "This is where you stay." As she goes up the mountain, the fog lifts with her. He bursts out crying. When he turns around, there are thousands of caribou in the valley, and he goes hunting, and provides food for his people.

It's an incredibly sad story, having to lose the one you love, but it's a very important value for the people, that the needs of the individual are secondary to the needs of the group. Having lived with those people, it's totally understandable that it would be a no-brainer. They would have to make sure their people survived.

Tell me about the ulu.

The ulu is the woman's knife. It's found throughout the arctic and subarctic. It is a woman's most useful tool. Whoever uses an ulu, it's like an extension of your hand. You can do amazing things with an ulu — I can't cook without mine! It's an iconic form; the image symbolizes to me and others the Eskimo woman. I decided to make jewelry in the shape and form of an ulu. Then I learned to make real functional ulus. Because of the way it's made, you get the full range of movement of your wrist. They use it for cutting fish, skinning animals, cutting skins, even cutting food as it's eaten — I've watched people cut off food millimeters from their lips. It's such a wonderful tool. And the shape of the blade, the handle — to me it just speaks jewelry.

You use such a huge range of jewelry-making techniques.

I've tried to master a wide variety of techniques. Basically the reason is that I can have a deeper vocabulary to express what I want to express. A piece of jewelry starts as a concept. Then I receive an image — I say "receive" because they come to me. I sketch it out and refine it into a design and then and only then I pick the materials I'm going to use. I decide on the technique I'm going to use and the gemstones I'm going to use. Knowing so many techniques allows me to get the density and the details I want in my work.

What about the stones that you use? Is it the same thing — that they're chosen to express an idea or fit the concept?

Yes. When I get a design worked out on paper, then I look through all my gemstones, look for one that's a size that I need. A lot of jewelry makers start with the stone first; I never do that. The design and texture and color of the stones have to say the right thing. I buy a lot of stones every year so that I can find a stone that works. And, I've learned a lot of different ways to set stones, so I can choose the way I'm going to set it for the piece.

After 50 years making jewelry, do you still have ambitions?

Oh, yes! I would love a piece of mine to be in a museum collection. I would love to see a piece on the cover of a magazine or a book. I want to continue to teach. I want to write a book about my life. And my jewelry — hopefully it'll be worn for generations. I have a detailed record of every piece I've ever made. Every piece I'm working on, I have a notebook beside me on the bench. I record times, materials, the process, the kind of solder I use ... that way, if I ever want to make a similar piece, or if a piece ever comes back for repair — which hardly ever happens — I'd be able to look it up. I want to continue making jewelry. I don't intend to ever stop until I can't see my work or I can't hold my tools. 55

[F] Owl Mask Spirit Helper Bracelet with Landscape Panels (two views). Sterling silver, 14k and 18k gold, mokume gane (copper/sterling silver), copper, pyrite, ivory, burgundy sapphire. V/s in. (41 mm) wide. [G] Foggy Woman: A Dena'ina Story brooch. Sterling silver, Damascene (steel, 14k gold), 14k gold, copper. 2 Vz in. (64 mm) high. [H] Wolf Ulu Landscape Brooch. Sterling silver, copper, dichroic glass. 27/s in. (73 mm) high. Inset: Ulu Knife Small with Legs. Steel, walnut wood. 6 in. (15.2 cm) wide. [I] Bowhead Whale Ulu Landscape Brooch/Pendant. Sterling silver, copper, 14k gold, fossil mammoth ivory. VA in. (44 mm) high. [J] Birch Forest Woman pendant/sculpture. Sterling silver, 14k and 18k gold, copper, uvarovite garnet drusy, emeralds, apatite beads, cherry wood stand. 4 in. (10.2 cm) high. All photos by Doug Yaple.

A photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope inspired the design of this VA x VA-in. (44x38 mm) pendant.

Precious Stones

Precious Stones

IN this little text-book the author has tried to combine the trade information which he has gained n  his  avocation,  the  study  of  precious  stones,  with  the  scientific  knowledge  bearing  thereon, which his vocation, the teaching of chemistry, has compelled him to master.

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