Native Arts | Denise Wallace

Denise WallaceBy Dottie Indyke

An acclaimed jeweler of Native Alaskan heritage honors her ancestry while living in Hawaii

Denise Wallace grew up in urban Seattle, a setting dramatically different from that of her mother’s Chugach Aleut ancestors. Yet the culture of the Arctic Alaskans was hardwired into the marrow of all of her family, herself included. Of her six siblings, four now live in Alaska, one played a key role in bringing Native crafts back to her village, and Denise has emerged as a high-level diplomat who introduces novices of all nationalities to the galvanizing beauty of indigenous Alaskan art.

Arguably the most esteemed jewelry artist of Native Alaskan descent, Wallace, now 49, maintains and modifies a walrus-ivory carving tradition that dates back more than 2,000 years. The styles and techniques of contemporary Pueblo and Navajo artists influence her work as well, the result of her more than 20 years spent as a resident of Santa Fe, NM, first as a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and later as a vendor selling her jewelry under the portal at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors. She and her husband, Samuel, are also inveterate rock hounds: The petrified dinosaur bones they discover in deserts from Oregon to Australia often wind up as brooches and pendants.

Denise WallaceBut elaborate belts are Wallace’s most spectacular achievements. Based around themes—such as female shamans or Arctic animals—they relay stories through a series of figures that can be removed and worn separately. Each element is true to tradition and contains astonishing detail given the miniature platform.

yup’ik dancer, for instance, made of gold, silver, semi-precious stones, and scrimshawed fossil ivory, portrays 10 dancers interspersed with 10 Yup’ik masks. The pieces in mask belt ii (1989) open to reveal a fossil-ivory inner spirit. And killer whale belt (1984) contains 12 sterling-silver whales inlaid and carved with scenes of Alaska.

Throughout the 1980s, these belts catapulted Wallace’s career onto a national platform: At the Santa Fe Indian Market over the years, she collected so many first-place ribbons that she abandoned the venue and opened her own Santa Fe gallery for a while specializing in Native Alaskan art.

As with all Wallace’s work, the belts are a collaboration with her husband. He is the lapidary expert, responsible for the transformation of rough rock into a diminutive arm or leg, while she works the metal and scrimshaw and undertakes the meticulous research that makes her pieces so authentic. The couple met while she was still in high school and he was a regular at the restaurant where she worked. More than three decades later, their children, Dawn, 23, and David, 21, have become accomplished jewelers, too, who often partner on artistic projects. Last year, Dawn’s 22-piece belt was recognized by peers at Santa Fe Indian Market with the prestigious Artists’ Choice Award.

Wallace’s signature work stems from a convergence of events: dissatisfaction with jewelry she felt looked like everyone else’s, her husband’s encouragement to try something new, and the loss of family members in Alaska. “My grandmother was passing away, a couple of my cousins had committed suicide,” she recalls. “I was feeling like I needed to be in Alaska, but I couldn’t go.” She turned her grief and frustration into a piece depicting killer whales, creatures she had seen and been awed by on previous visits. The response encouraged her to start down the path of imagery inspired by her heritage.

Her cumulative success is reflected in a traveling retrospective covering 25 years of Wallace jewelry. Containing 16 belts and 150 individual pieces, Arctic Transformations: The Jewelry of Denise and Samuel Wallace opened last year at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and traveled to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, then the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. In August 2006 it opens at the IAIA Museum in Santa Fe, where it runs through early November. A book of the same name by Native scholar Lois Sherr Dubin accompanies the exhibition.

The most recent chapter of Wallace’s life unfolds in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, where she and her family moved seven years ago. From her studio there, Wallace has a view of the ocean, her own 3-acre property, the family pigs, and plenty of lush, overgrown greenery—a geography diametrically opposed to both the high, dry New Mexico desert and the wintry cold of Alaska.

She may have changed her environment, but her art remains rooted in her past. “I have always been sure that I wanted to represent Alaskan Native culture through my work,” Wallace says. “Ironically, the fact that I was outside Alaska helped expose us to people from all over the world. I think we have been influential in getting collectors to turn toward Arctic work.”

Wallace is represented by Long Ago & Far Away, Manchester Center, VT; IAIA Museum, Santa Fe, NM; and

Featured in “Native Arts” July 2006