Saturday, September 5, 2009


Rich with history and natural attractions, we walk along the Redoubt Lake Trail of Alaska's Sitka National Historical Park.

Established nearly 100 years ago, the two-mile long "national monument" consists of giant Spruce trees, flowers, shrubs, and magnificent replicas of native totem poles including the Raven and a Bear, and the Village Watchmen.

Alaska is also the ancestral home of featured jewelry designer Denise Wallace.

Over the past few months, I have learned that every piece of jewelry is imbued with personal history. This is an inevitable aspect of designing, and of course, Wallace is no exception. Wallace's jewelry is beyond description.

To say it is beautiful feels inadequate as her personal history tells the story of a people. Seattle-born Wallace lived with her Aleut grandmother in Cordova, New Mexico after graduating from high school. "My grandmother used to tell me stories about how she grew up, how she lived. When I am planning my designs and sketching, I think about those stories," she says.

Absorbing her grandmother's recollections led Wallace to attend the Institute for American Indian Arts (I.A.I.A.) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What Wallace learned about New Mexico's Native American culture as well as the Aleuts proved more than inspiration; this was her blood, her life, a spiritual link. In 1982, after graduating from I.A.I.A. Wallace set up a workshop with her husband, Samuel, an expert gem cutter.

Working alongside her husband, Wallace painstakingly creates distinctive works of art implementing traditional materials used by Aleuts such as fossilized walrus tusk, silver, 14-karat gold, and inlaid stones including beautiful lapis.

She also masterfully incorporates the jewelry making styles of Navajo and Hopi Indians. Ultimately, Wallace wanted to create jewelry that expressed the Aleut lifestyle of fishing and hunting, ancient symbols, and folk tales. For 10 years, after establishing her workshop, she produced an annual art show called "Visions of Alaska."

Wallace's most popular items are her storytelling belts--her interpretation of the Navajo Concho Belt--composed of beautifully detailed, linked figurines of Aleut people and Alaskan wildlife. These spectacular items are fashioned with hinges that reveal smaller, wearable items when pulled open.

Though designed with contemporary accents, the pieces clearly reflect Wallace's ancestral history making her pieces more than jewelry. I felt transported through time. The sense of history, the life and traditions of a people, the artisanship is mesmerizing.

A book by Lois Sherr Dubin entitled "Arctic Transformations: The Jewelry of Denise and Samuel Wallace," outlines the couple's development of their company that now include their children, Dawn and David.

"We [my husband and I] downsized and brought our kids into the business, teaching them what we are doing. Technically, they know everything that we know," Wallace says.

Wallace and her husband appeared in the PBS program "Craft in America," and her unique jewelry pieces have been regularly exhibited at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art in California, and I.A.I.A.
Photo 1 (top right): Sterling Silver Dancer Ring with Inlaid Lapis and Walrus Tusk
Photo 2 (bottom left): Sun-Moon Earrings made with 14-Karat Gold, Sterling Silver, Inlaid Ivory and Lapis
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