Design Talk Interview – Joan Tenenbaum

As promised, here is my November, 2013 interview with Joan Tenenbaum. Not only will you gain insights into her development as a jeweler, you will discover how Joan’s interactions with the native Alaskan people and the environment influenced her work.

Connie: Many of the jewelry makers I encounter discover this path as a “second career” or after they raise a family. You started making jewelry in high school at the age of 13 and there was an immediate attraction. What drew you in? How has this early experience influenced you?

Joan: I had always liked making things with my hands. But, honestly, I did not see jewelry coming. 
I took a class called “Crafts” in the 9th grade and everything I touched seemed so natural to me—copper tooling, linoleum block printing, enameling—and then I was introduced to silver. In an instant I knew it was my medium. I loved the scale, I loved the methodical nature of the techniques and steps involved, and I immediately recognized the symbolic nature of wearing it on one’s body. But I think the nature of the metal and the ability to fashion anything one imagined by sawing, filing and soldering parts together was the most captivating part.
Because I had such an early start in jewelry making, I have had the time and opportunity to explore practically every aspect of metalsmithing, from ring making to hollowware, from tiny granulation to sculpture, from gemstone setting to cloisonné, and to test out and practice variants on every conceivable technique of surface embellishment.

Connie: You received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University. For your dissertation you did research in tiny Alaskan villages inhabited by native peoples. Were you able to continue jewelry making during this time? Were you inspired by your surroundings while you were in Alaska, or has this developed after you left?

Joan: The only time in my life since the age of thirteen that I did not have my jewelry tools with me was during the two years in which I was carrying out the research for my dissertation. Immediately upon returning to the “city” life, I had my tools shipped to me and began making jewelry again. It took about two years after that for “Alaska” to start appearing in my work in the form of mountains, but it wasn’t till I left Alaska that the animals and peoples entered the scene.

Connie: In one commentary I read about you, you described being conflicted about jewelry making versus your work as a researcher. Would you be willing to share more about this? How did you resolve the dilemma?

Joan: It was really difficult for me to leave my academic career. I resigned jobs three times, but I kept being hired back to live in this village or teach in that program. The problem was I was really good at both fields and wanted to pursue both.  But realistically, I’m an all-in sort of person and I knew I couldn’t do both at the same time. So I felt torn in half. The dilemma was finally resolved by the sheer strength of the burning desire within me to be a jeweler. The third time I resigned I said, “I don’t care if I starve; I’m not taking another job!”
Later, when the anthropologist’s voice inside me started to speak through my jewelry work, the real synthesis began.

Connie: How would you describe your work in terms of a design genre? Narrative? Symbolic? Figurative? Other?

Joan: I call my work Anthropological Jewelry. In that I mean I tell the stories of and interpret the cultures of the peoples I lived with. I tell about their lives, their food, their families, their traditions, their beliefs, and their landscape. So it is all three—narrative, symbolic, and figurative!

Connie:Your work seems imbued with wisdom and universal spiritual principles. Have you been influenced spiritually by your experiences in Alaska? How do you think your work impacts people who view or own it? Do you consider your work to have amuletic properties?

Joan: When I arrived in Alaska to embark on my field research, I consciously opened my mind and heart and suspended both judgment and disbelief. I believe this is why I was accepted so warmly in every village where I lived. But what it did for me was allow me to see how the people there interacted spiritually with the land that has and continues to support them and how this has enabled their culture to stay cohesive even in the face of revolutionary change caused by the tsunami of the dominant Colonial culture. 
I could not help but be influenced spiritually by being a participant observer in these cultures for so many decades.
Many people have expressed to me the fact that my work resonates spiritually with them. I think through my work I remind people of our spiritual connection to the earth which, in today’s world, is easy to forget.
I do feel that my pieces are amuletic. I know what I put into each one as I am making it and that energy is carried by the piece long after it leaves my hands.

Connie: Some of the themes of your work focus on the dual nature of reality, for example, male “versus” female energies. Other themes seem to focus on merging with the physical world and with animals. Were these themes of particular importance to you, or are you simply reporting your observations?

Joan: Most of my pieces contain several layers of meaning.  Beneath the literal or surface meaning is usually a deeper metaphorical story. Sometimes animals merge with the spiritual realm or with their physical surroundings. Often animals are depicted along with their spiritual essence. Often I depict a subject or a scene from two different vantage points—for example, a distant view embedded in a close-up scene, or a view of the land out to the horizon combined with a view as seen from a satellite or an aircraft. 
When studying other cultures it is important to remember that things are not always as they seem at first glance. However, these layers of symbolism in my work have evolved not so much from my observations as an anthropologist but more from my work as a linguist working with meaning in language. I strive to tell a story that will draw the viewer in to ask for and discover more.

Connie: What inspired you to tell your stories of the Alaskan indigenous people through your jewelry as opposed to following a more traditional route by writing a book?

Joan: I have been making jewelry since I was thirteen years old. Even in high school I was making pieces that had inner symbolism. But somewhere along the line my pieces started to speak about Alaska. One cannot live in that vast country, especially in remote areas, without it affecting one’s psyche. As my pieces began telling stories of the people and landscape of Alaska, I discovered that quite by accident the voice that was speaking was the voice of an Anthropologist: Interpreting and making understandable Indigenous cultures. When I saw what was happening in my work, I realized that I really could continue both my careers by this synthesis and I felt my soul finally start to be reintegrated.

Connie: You have been teaching for over 20 years. How do you work with your students to develop their own design aesthetic?

Joan: I feel that my job as a teacher is to teach the mastery of technique—forming, soldering, making a perfectly formed bezel setting, engraving, or multiple ways of surface enrichment, to cite a few examples. By teaching the mastery of technique I feel I am enabling my students to expand their vocabulary of visual effects and thus be able to tell whatever story their heart desires to tell.

Connie: What process do you follow in creating your jewelry? Do you make detailed sketches, or are you more spontaneous as you create?

Joan: I have a very methodical approach to my work. I start with an idea or story; translate that into a vision which becomes a sketch. I refine the sketch to a detailed design exactly to scale. Then and only then do I select materials and decide how I’m going to make it and get it to look like my vision.
As I work, I document each step in the process, keeping track of the date started, materials, time spent, and exactly what I did in the order I did it, including construction diagrams and mockups. I do this in a work journal that is on my bench at all times. I have a series of these work journals documenting every piece I have made since the late 1970’s. They are all bound books with blank pages and form a catalogue raisonné of my work.

Connie: I am sure many jewelry makers will be encouraged to know you have made a living creating jewelry and by teaching for the last 23 years. Do you have any advice for up and coming jewelry designers in this regard?

Joan: My advice for up and coming jewelry designers is: practice, practice, practice.  Make your work the best it can be in every way. Take workshops at every opportunity to learn new techniques, but follow your unique vision. Every year hire a great professional jewelry photographer to take shots of your best work. Take risks artistically to stretch and grow.

Connie: After reading about your life and your work, Joan, I am deeply touched. Your connection with the land, native people and animals reminds me how minimal these influences are in my own life. Has living a more conventional life in the state of Washington impacted your creative energy, your work? Does making your jewelry keep you connected to your earlier experiences in Alaska?

Joan: I have continued to keep my connections to Alaska active for the 24 years I have lived in Washington State. I read magazines and newspapers about and from Alaska and go back to visit friends and colleagues every couple of years. As often as I can I seek out beauty in nature here in Washington and my design sources continue to be from the natural world.
Having said that, living in a semi-urban community offers me the advantages of a community of friends and peers, and facilities for daily exercise workouts which keep me healthy and ready to return to Alaska at a moment’s notice!

Joan’s Website:

Joan’s Email:


All images and text are ©Copyright 2010-2014 Connie Fox except where indicated. All rights reserved.

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  1. Connie

     /  January 30, 2014

    Linda, you sound like me when I first came across Joan’s website. So glad you are enjoying her work.

  2. Linda Greene

     /  January 29, 2014

    I just went to her web site, wow! I love her esthetics and design frames. Just beautiful.

  3. Linda Greene

     /  January 29, 2014

    Wonderful interview. She sounds like a fascinating individual and I will look into viewing her jewelry. I loved my visit to Alaska and look forward to going back again.

    Good job as always Connie Fox!

  4. Connie

     /  January 29, 2014

    Lynn, I think Joan is an extraordinary artist and I’m very grateful to have interviewed her. I am so glad you enjoyed “meeting” her.

  5. Connie

     /  January 29, 2014

    Dorothy, it is the spiritual dimension that drew me right to Joan’s work. Of all her pieces, “Her Partner Turned to Black Bear” was the most meaningful to me. The realization that the native people are so deeply in tune with their surroundings that their bodies merge with nature, makes for both a beautiful story and image.

  6. Lynn

     /  January 29, 2014

    Really, really, great interview Connie. This is one jeweler who really DOES have a story behind her work and it certainly shows!
    Wonderful – thank you.

  7. Dorothy Segar

     /  January 29, 2014

    Loved this interview, Connie! Her fusion of her backgrounds and incorporation of her loves is very intriguing. Love the way she describes the spiritual mystical in her work as well!

  8. Connie

     /  January 29, 2014

    Jonna, I am so glad you enjoyed Joan. I agree, she is truly amazing.

  9. Another wonderful interview, Connie!!! Thank you for introducing me to Joan’s work. Her jewelry is amazing. I was very taken by her process, too.

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