Design Talk – Joan Tenenbaum

I decided to be illogical. Commonsense told me to introduce you to Joan Tenenbaum via my online December interview with her. But, power convinced me otherwise.

Nothing speaks as clearly about the heart of this talented woman than her work. Joan’s jewelry, along with the stories her pieces tell, captivated me from the start. Her seventeen years living with the Athabaskan Indians, and Yup’ik and Iñupiaq Eskimos has provided a rich, powerful platform for her work. This experience was part of her dissertation research for a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University.

For now, here are seven pieces of jewelry along with Joan’s stories. If you want to learn more about Joan Tenenbaum, our interview will be published next week.

Her Partner Turned to Black Bear by Joan Tenenbaum

Her Partner Turned to Black Bear by Joan Tenenbaum

By Joan Tenenbaum

This piece was inspired by a Dena’ina traditional story that I recorded in 1974 while doing my linguistic field work in Nondalton, Alaska.

The story is about two women who went into the mountains for the summer to trap ground squirrels. One of them set her snares each day and each day came back with ground squirrels. The other one always walked to a certain clearing and spent the entire day eating berries. The first woman thought this was very strange, but said nothing. Thus they passed the entire summer. As fall approached, the first woman went up to set her snares one last day. When she came down in the evening, her partner was still there, eating berries. Overcome by confusion, she burst into song, lamenting her friend’s strange behavior. At that, her partner took one look at her, put her head back down, and ran off into the brush on all fours. She had become a black bear!

This brooch depicts both an Inuit woman and a bear in contemplative pose, thoughts far away. Many northern myths describe women becoming transformed into bears. Why? In this environment the two species share the same space, the same food. Living on the tundra, the connection to the land is so strong that perhaps it was not so much a transformation but rather a flowing between states much like snowflakes and water…

The inscription on the back says, “Are their thoughts really that different?”

The portrait of the woman was adapted from a photograph by Richard Harrington taken in the 1950’s. The portrait of the bear was adapted from a sketch by Doug Lindstrand. The Dena’ina story is published in Dena’ina Sukdu’a: Traditional Stories of the Tanaina Athabaskans, recorded, transcribed and translated by Joan M. Tenenbaum.

Caribou Crossing III By Joan Tenenbaum

Caribou Crossing III
By Joan Tenenbaum

By Joan Tenenbaum

The large spiritual or foreground caribou at the top transforms into mountains on the far side of the Arctic plain on which distant caribou in low Arctic light are migrating as far as the eye can see.

This piece is about habitat, migration and the value and irony of traditional behavior. Caribou have the longest migration of any terrestrial mammal. Some caribou may travel 5,000 kilometers or 3100 miles each year. The inscription on the side says, “led by the web of memory.” The Inuit’s and Athabaskans’ deep understanding of the animals’ behavior enables them to ensure a winter’s food supply, as the caribou are “led by a web of memory” to cross rivers and valleys at traditional places where the crossing is easy but they can be easily hunted. There is a warning here too, however, in the use of fossil bone, that extinction is right around the corner for both species if habitat is not protected.

The inscription quotation is from Nick Jans, A Place Beyond, p. 71. Stellar Sea Cow is an extinct species. The last known sighting was in 1762.

 Wolf in Black Spruce IV: Our Land, Our Ancestors By Joan Tenenbaum

Wolf in Black Spruce IV:
Our Land, Our Ancestors
By Joan Tenenbaum

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: Our land, Our Ancestors By Joan Tenenbaum

Now hard obstacles,
Where generations wandered.
It was ours, you know.

She stands accusingly, as if facing off to us. Her landscape resonates with the knowledge, both hard wired and learned, of how to wrest a living here: how to travel, cooperate, communicate, and survive. What have we done to her habitat?

Four Seasons Mandala Pendant by Joan Tenenbaum

Four Seasons Mandala Pendant by Joan Tenenbaum

By Joan Tenenbaum

For this piece, made for a Transformation theme show, I wanted to show the transformation of a tree through the seasons. I decided to divide the piece into quadrants and have the tree depicted in a different season in each quadrant. Then I decided to make the piece with four pendant bails so the piece could be worn in all four directions.

The woman who purchased this piece has a special ceremony and rotates the piece on every solstice and equinox!

Foggy Woman - A Dena'ina Story by Joan Tenenbaum

Foggy Woman – A Dena’ina Story by Joan Tenenbaum


It was summertime when the families were in the mountains hunting caribou and trapping ground squirrels. A young man encountered a young woman on the mountain. He asked her to go back home with him, but she refused. All summer long they met on the hills. Finally he asked her again to come home with him, and told her it would be all right. When they came to their camp, it began raining on them. Day after day, it rained and was foggy. The people could not hunt and their food started to run out. The woman told the man that this was the reason she had refused, that unless she left it would never be good for his people.

So they wrapped their baby in a blanket, and started up the mountain. She told him when it was far enough, that he should sit there, and she continued up the mountain. The man watched her and as she walked up, the fog was lifting with her. He burst out crying. He watched her walk over the hill, out of sight, and the fog, too, went over the hill. It stopped raining; the sun started shining.

The man wiped his eyes, turned around and looked into the valley. There were caribou—thousands of caribou. He wiped his eyes, ran down to his camp, grabbed his bow and arrows, and started hunting caribou. He packed a bunch of meat home. It was good for them again.

And that’s the way it happened, Foggy Woman Story.

I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Antone Evan during my years in Nondalton. Antone had lost his eyesight as a result of snow blindness, and he had dedicated himself to developing his memory. He had an extraordinary repertoire of traditional stories and songs. Although he spoke beautiful Dena’ina, Antone was not fluent in English, so I developed a field work strategy utilizing the strengths of my two best informants.

After I recorded the stories spoken in normal speech, I played them back for Antone at a slower speed and he repeated each word or phrase for me while I transcribed it. I then took these transcriptions to Pete Trefon, Sr., read them to him word by word and he would translate them for me. In this way I used everyone’s time efficiently and got the best data that I could.

This piece also honors the artist Dale DeArmond who died in late 2006. In 1978 DeArmond was commissioned to create the public art work for the new Nondalton school. When she went to the village she asked the people what they would like to see in their new school, and they responded, “We want pictures of Joan’s stories!!” The woodblock prints she created now illustrate my book.

Wolf Ulu Landscape Brooch by Joan Tenenbaum

Wolf Ulu Landscape Brooch by Joan Tenenbaum

By Joan Tenenbaum

This piece was the very first in my Ulu Landscape Series. I had used the form of the ulu knife before to make brooches but this was the first time I used the blade as a canvas to depict a landscape and animal.

Birch Forest Woman II - Regaining Her Bearings by Joan Tenenbaum

Birch Forest Woman II – Regaining Her Bearings by Joan Tenenbaum

BIRCH FOREST WOMAN II: Regaining Her Bearings – Enameled Spirit Helper Pendant By Joan Tenenbaum

This piece marks the second synthesis in my work of the Spirit Helper Series with the Birch Forest Series.

Whereas Birch Forest Woman I was alive with the colors of Spring, this time she is adorned with the colors of Fall: burnt orange hair, and leaves turning at the edges, ready to make their graceful fall to the earth as they are touched by wind. The two silver side flanges are at the same time extensions of her hair, and her hands in the serene Yoga Tadasana pose. Her face and form are inspired by a Punuk Style Old Bering Sea Ivory Figurine from 2000 years ago.

In this piece I used the Baisse Taille enameling technique, covering a textured surface, in this case my birch bark texture, with transparent enamel.

To me, spirit helpers are both ancient and modern. They are small helpmates to give us courage and hope and to aid us in spiritual, emotional or physical regeneration, healing, growth or serenity.

Joan Tenenbaum images in this post are copyright Joan Tenenbaum; Doug Yaple, Photographer.




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

Leave a comment


  1. Connie Fox

     /  January 20, 2014

    Kim,I agree. All of Joan’s pieces are treasures.

  2. Kim Thoresen

     /  January 19, 2014

    These are mind blowing to me. The inspiration and the workmanship. I could happily stare at any of these for a very long, long time.

  3. Connie Fox

     /  January 16, 2014

    Jonna, you too have the ability to tell stories with words and with your jewelry. I thought you would enjoy Joan’s work. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  4. What powerful stories Joan tells both with words and with her imagery. Thank you so much for sharing her work!!! I look forward to reading your interview with her!!!

  5. Connie

     /  January 12, 2014

    Not surprisingly, Dorothy, you selected the one I love the most!

  6. Dorothy Segar

     /  January 12, 2014

    Thanks for sharing, Connie. I especially like the wolf pieces. Have a passion for animals and especially the wolf so the first one especially speaks to me.

  7. Connie Fox

     /  January 12, 2014

    Darla, I love what she did with the rotating trees also. Such an imaginative choice. I am glad you enjoyed Joan’s work.

    Kathy, I knew you would love her work. Thank you for your comment!

  8. Kathy Oxford

     /  January 11, 2014

    Thank you Connie—another example of how jewelry is such a powerful form of expression—an endless form. As I read you blog and Joan’s website, I too thought of my favorite book in college—Margaret Mead’s bio-‘Blackberry Winter’. Joan T has been so true to both her passions; as disparate as they may seem at first glance. I’m so very impressed. I think she needs a visit to California…..

  9. What wonderful pieces! I love the rotating tree pendant and the other designs reminded me of two favourite books Late Nights on Air and Through Black Spruce. I’m compelled to read them once again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *