Art Beat: Hawaiian shell exhibit has an Alaska link

Mike Dunham
Leis from the Rick & Chuna Ni'ihau Shell Lei Collection
David Franzen
Leptothyra verruca, shown here, along with Euplica varians and Graphicomassa margarita, are the three most commonly used mollusks on Ni'ihau shell leis.
Keoki Stender
Classical guitarist Valerie Hartzell performs at Anchorage Lutheran Church on March 24, 2013.
Marc Lester

An exhibit of Ni'ihau necklaces at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu has been so successful that it has been extended. That may provide a special vacation bonus for Alaskans planning on spending spring break in Hawaii.

"Ni'ihau Shell Lei: Ocean Origins, Living Traditions," which was set to close earlier this year, will be kept on display through April 14. The show features more than 60 leis made from the unique shells on the "forbidden island" of Ni'ihau and coveted by collectors. Under Hawaiian law, a Ni'ihau lei must be made on the privately-owned island.

The Rick and Chuna Ni'ihau Shell Lei Collection that forms the core of the show belongs to Rick Luttman and Chuna McIntyre of California, McIntyre being the well-known contemporary and traditional Yup'ik artist originally from Eek.

McIntyre told me that his fascination with the Ni'ihau pieces started about 20 years ago when he made his first trip to Hawaii.

"I saw one in a very fancy jewelry store and said, 'Where is that from?' What I recognized was the way they strung the colors of the shells was the way we string Yup'ik necklaces." He began buying the pieces and, over time, accumulated the collection.

"The art form is centuries old," he said excitedly, "one of those art forms that the world has not totally discovered yet."

But the Bishop Museum people are certainly aware of it. "They were doing this exhibit about the science and craftsmanship, with some of the leis worn by Hawaiian royalty and some archeological pieces, and they asked to borrow some of ours. We brought the collection for them to look at and, when it was all set out, there was this long silence. Then someone said, 'I think these shells can stand on their own.'

"We were mobbed at the opening. The collectors came out in droves, wearing their very best Ni'ihau shells, astonishing pieces."

McIntyre, who has visited Ni'ihau as a guest, said the lustrous shells are unique to the island, hard to gather and even harder to work with.

"You have to go out after a big storm," he said. "They collect them with tweezers, putting them in baby food jars. Then they have to clean them and grade them and size them." While making holes to string the shells, he said, three out of four shells will break, which makes creating a piece with as many as 7,000 shells a mind-boggling achievement.

Hartzell guitar series announced

Guitarist Valerie Hartzell, who left Alaska for England after her husband got a job there, is back in the state this month. She'll perform at 7:30 p.m. March 3 in the UAA Fine Arts Building recital hall before heading to the Kenai Peninsula for some school concerts. At 7:30 p.m. on March 7, she'll perform at Soldotna Christ Lutheran Church. Then she'll come back to Anchorage for a program with singer and pianist Tamara McCoy at 4 p.m. on March 9 at Anchorage Lutheran Church, a venue she packed to capacity last year.

More information can be found at

Master singers vie Sunday

The National Association of Teachers of Singing Alaska District holds artist auditions in their biannual competition for advanced artists at 11 a.m. Sunday in the UAA Arts Building Recital Hall. The public is invited and admission is free. The competition will be followed at 1:30 p.m. by a master class led by Stephen Sulich, the exemplary conductor of several memorable Anchorage Opera performances and all-around superb musician. Admission to that event is $5.

Ivory issues at White House

In mid-December I received a phone call from a prominent Alaska art dealer who directed me to some Internet chatter about a proposed ban on ivory sales -- not just elephant ivory, the chatterers said, but ALL ivory, including walrus and mammoth, with no exemption for Alaska Native artwork.

I've spent the last two months trying to confirm the allegation and here's what I've been able to come up with:

Executive Order 13647, issued by President Obama on July 1, 2013, created something called the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking to work with the Cabinet-level Wildlife Trafficking Task Force. The council had its first meeting in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 16. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was in attendance. After repeated requests to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife I received a copy of the minutes and a link to the audio record of the meeting.

Ivory was the hot-button issue, the item most talked about. But every mention appeared to specifically refer to African elephant ivory. When the word "ivory" was used by itself, or even the phrase "all ivory," it seemed plain to me that what was meant was African elephant ivory, including African elephant ivory presently traded either through loopholes in existing laws (antique ivory is its own animal, so to speak) or because of confusion about the rules or in violation of the law.

I found no direct statement whatsoever regarding walruses or mammoths and no hint that the ivory of marine mammals or extinct species was ever under discussion. I'm not sure the members of the panel -- all well-heeled big-time political donors, not an Alaskan to be seen -- even know such ivory exists. If they did, it's not what they were talking about.

After listening to every turgid word in the close to four-hour recording, I did hear that a draft document containing recommendations the council planned to forward to the White House was available to people who were at the meeting. I asked Fish and Wildlife for a copy of that but, at press time, have only received a kind of summary that advises new laws to prohibit most import of African elephant ivory into the Unites States and outlaw sales of such within the country.

You can find out more for yourself at, which includes links to the meeting minutes and audio.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.