Joan Tenenbaum

Joan Tenenbaum

A linguist, an anthropologist, an award-winning jeweler, an artist and a poet—Joan Tenenbaum fuses her technical, intellectual and creative abilities into jewelry that is imbued with beauty, spirituality and mystery.

From the age of 13 Tenenbaum’s first love has been jewelry-making. However, her path led at first to an academic life.  She received her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. from Columbia University.  Research for her dissertation took her to a tiny village in Alaska where she lived with Athabaskan Indians and wrote a grammar and dictionary of their endangered language. She also compiled 24 stories for her book Dena’ina Sukdu’a: Traditional Stories of the Tanaina Athabaskans.   She later lived with Yup’ik and Iñupiaq Eskimos in several other villages, teaching and coordinating programs for the University of Alaska.  During all these years, she continued to make jewelry and never gave up her dream to one day be a full-time artist.  In 1990 the artist moved to Washington State, where she now focuses on her jewelry and teaching.

Tenenbaum was already winning awards for her jewelry when she was in high school in Detroit, Michigan.  She has continued to add to her knowledge and skills, studying in such varied places as the University of Mexico, the Craft Students League in New York, the University of Alaska and in Oregon with a private mentor.  She has shared her knowledge by teaching jewelry at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, in workshops and with many private students.

Throughout her work there is a poetry of feeling and distilled emotion which intertwines through all the pieces as a sort of mystical leitmotiv.  The work itself consists of detailed, culture- and nature-inspired wearable pieces that are hand fabricated using precious metals and gemstones.  She uses such techniques as engraving, chasing, repoussé, forging, roller texturing, foldforming, mokume gane, granulation, reticulation, damascene, keum boo, anticlastic raising, cloisonné, and stone setting to create the fascinating textures, colors and contrasts that narrate her work.  Many of these pieces are part of a series exploring a theme, and each is individually hand made.  Her native culture-inspired pieces frequently take the form of a mask or human figure, symbols of the spirituality in the cultures in which she lived, or are translations of ancient stories or artifacts.  In these pieces she pays homage to some of the last remaining hunting societies, which she feels have been kept alive by their deep connection with the Arctic land and animals that support them. Her pieces that speak of landscape and animals carry environmental messages.

Her work is shown nationwide and has been featured in nine books as well as in Ornament, Lapidary Journal, Jewelry Artist, American Craft, Art Jewelry, Creating Linus Jewellery, American Style, AJM, Niche and Metalsmith magazines. Her work was recently collected by the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center in Alaska.