Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Denise Wallace

By Barry Ace

Sedna Necklace, 1995-1996, Sterling silver, 14-karat gold, Fossil ivory, 4 1/4 inches long, Courtesy of the artist

Sedna Necklace, 1995-1996, Sterling silver, 14-karat gold, Fossil ivory, 4 1/4 inches long, Courtesy of the artist

 Denise Wallace was born in Seattle, Washington in 1957 and is Chugach Aleut. Wallace’s Aleutian homeland is situated in present day Alaska and includes the traditional territories of the Commander, Pribilof and Shumagin Islands as well as the western part of the Alaskan peninsula. Her Aleutian culture, traditions and spirituality are deeply rooted, intertwined and shaped by a rich and vibrant marine coastal existence between land and sea. Life within the boundaries of the abundant and rugged beauty of the Alaskan coastal landscape meant a precarious existence that was ultimately dependent upon the success of the hunt and fishing forays in an often climatically harsh environment. Social cohesiveness, collective ownership and clearly defined gender-specific roles developed as imperative attributes for survival of the group and these were reinforced and instilled through an ancient, rich and vibrant longstanding wealth of storytelling, ritual and ceremony. The complex origins, migrations, maladies, cosmologies, beliefs and mythologies of this landscape are a collective testimony to the perseverance of the people and to the essential unifying bond between the tribe and the individual.

Native American tribal societies considered art as integral to the design and function of material culture. Tattooing, piercing, scarification, ornamentation, applique, embroidery, beadwork and other forms of decoration were incorporated and developed into tribally distinct aesthetics that not only identified a specific tribe but also represented gender, geneaology, rank or vocation (warrior or healer). With the introduction of trade and commerce, western materials and jewelry became integral currency for trade and barter. Miniature ivory carvings in particular, became popular with seafaring whalers who were limited in the tourist momentos they could transport.

Sedna Necklace, 1995-1996, Sterling silver, 14-karat gold, Fossil ivory, 4 1/4 inches long, Courtesy of the artist

Sedna Necklace, 1995-1996, Sterling silver, 14-karat gold, Fossil ivory, 4 1/4 inches long, Courtesy of the artist

Denise Wallace’s jewelry is connected to this longstanding history and sensibility, especially in her use of walrus and ivory carving and scrimshaw traditions. Her work incorporates motifs, legends, animism, masks, people, animals and cultural references drawn from her Aleut heritage and the stories passed on to her from her grandmother. Denise and her husband Samuel moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1977, where she attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and subsequently opened a jewelry studio. For the next ten years, she designed and produced her work for collectors, museums, and galleries in addition to organizing Visions of Alaska, an annual show featuring Alaskan artists.

Wallace works in gold, silver, ivory, lapis lazuli and malachite. On ivory, she often utilizes scrimshaw, an incising technique popular with whalers in the early 1800s. This technique can be seen in her ivory rings and pendants that portray traditional Aleut women’s tattooed faces. Transformation and duality of spirit are two commonly recurring themes in her jewelry work. These concepts are explored in pieces that have dual function, such as a pendant broach that transforms to an earring, or a hinged belt work that opens up to reveal a Yua (dual spirit) as in the transformation of a shaman into a bear.

For the exhibition, The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks-Agayuliyararput, Our Way of Making Prayer (1996), Wallace, with her husband Samuel, created a stunning belt consisting of ten individual ceremonial dancers separated by ten Yup’ik masks in silver, intricately inlayed with ivory, shell and turquoise. The belt is significant in its integration of both form and function, transforming the spirituality and traditional knowledge of the Yup’ik into a beautiful work of art, yet purposeful, in its function as a ceremonial regalia belt which can be worn and celebrated at sacred gatherings.

Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Art, Spring 2013

Web-based Resources

Wallace, Denise. “Denise Wallace Jewelry,” Denise Wallace Jewelry 2012

This is the artist’s personal website.

Indyke, Dottie. “Native Arts, Denise Wallace.” Southwest Art, Aug. 1, 2006.

This page provides a brief bio on Wallace as she was featured in Southwest Art Magazine.

Selected Bibliography

Fosdik, Rose Atuk. “Interview: Denise Wallace,” Institute of Alaska Native Arts Journal, (1988) IAIA Archives.

This newspaper article from the late 80’s features an interview with Denise Wallace explaining her process.

Raether, Keith. “Northwest Meets Southwest,” The News Tribune, (1988) IAIA Archives.

This article contains an interview with Denise and how she mixes her northwest culture with southwest art.

Sherr-Dubli, Lois. Artic Transformations: the Jewelry of Denise and Samuel Wallace. Easton Studio Press, 2005.

This book is an illustrated overview of the intricate sculptural jewelry created by Denise Wallace and her partner Samuel Wallace.

Schiffer, Nancy N. Masters of Contemporary Indian Jewelry, Schiffer Publishing Company, 2009.

This book is a compilation of many traditions presents with fresh, modern styles, Denise Wallace being among them.