Technically astounding, aesthetically beautiful and culturally important. These are just some of the ways in which Denise Wallace’s jewelry can be described. Inspired by the stories of her Chugach Aleut ancestors, her unique creations have made her the best-known Alaska Native jeweler of our time.
Wallace began her artistic journey as a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late 70s. After graduating, she and her husband Samuel remained in Santa Fe creating and selling work from their studio and gallery for 20 years. In 1999, the Wallaces moved from the high desert to the tropics of Hawaii where they continued to collaborate on pieces. In 2010, Denise’s beloved Samuel passed away, but his influence on the couple’s work will forever be felt.
Beyond the indelible imprint that could only be made by the decades long partnership with Samuel, Wallace credits Native American artists such as Allan Houser, John Hoover, Charles Loloma, Roxanne Swentzell and many more as being influential to her work, as well. However, the content of her pieces remain firmly planted in the rich stories and customs of the Native people of arctic Alaska, stories that deal with themes of healing, growth, nature and transformation. “The transformation aspect is what inspired the doors and hinges on my work, Wallace says.
In addition to complex mechanical components like the tiny, working lockets that open to reveal hidden subject matter, Wallace utilizes materials like silver, gold, semiprecious stones and scrimshawed, fossilized ivory to join old traditions and stories with her newly envisioned interpretations. Figures and faces dance and come alive in dazzling belts, earrings, pendants and more.
Her work has been featured in the major traveling exhibition, Arctic Transformations: The Jewelry of Denise and Samuel Wallace organized by the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in Anchorage, Alaska; Craft in America 3, a PBS series, nationally touring exhibition and publication; Gifts of the Spirit: Works by Nineteenth Century and Contemporary Native American Artists, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and more. Wallace’s work is also housed in the permanent collections of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in Anchorage, Alaska; the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, New York and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California.
Wallace says, “I hope to create pieces that speak to people… pieces that have a life of their own and become part of the world. I have always wanted the pieces to tell a story about our land, our people and some small song or story about the world we live in.”
With an international following and resume bursting with international exhibits and exchanges, Wallace continues to both honor and celebrate the people and places of her homelands by sharing their stories, through jewelry, around the world.
By Staci Golar