Denise L. Emerson was born in Shelton, WA and currently resides in Burien, WA. She is the eldest daughter of Bertha Allen who was an enrolled Twana (Skokomish) Tribal Member and Danny Emerson, Sr. who was an enrolled Diné (Navajo) Tribal Member. The imagery in her work is based on familial relationships and, by extension, these dual cultural influences. Trained as a graphic designer, she also merges contemporary practices with traditional methodologies.
Denise recently collaborated on a project with Native Action Network with support from Friends of the Waterfront Seattle. Working with Urban ArtWorks, Denise and Native Action Network designed a mural to be installed at the new Native Action Network offices in Seattle.
Native Action Network is a force for positive change, a nonprofit committed to promoting the full representation, participation, and leadership of Native women in local, state, tribal, and national affairs. For over two decades, NAN has been mobilizing generations of Native leaders dedicated to serving their communities, uplifting Native women’s legacies, and advancing justice through community organization.
Denise painting in the Urban ArtWorks studio.
Your artistic journey is deeply rooted in your family’s heritage and creativity. How do you feel your Indigenous heritage has influenced your art over the years?
My heritage of both tribes has had a tremendous effect on my artwork. It was important to my parents to know the rich cultures I was born into, they talked about tribal history, and how important it is for me to know where I came from and my part in tribal history.
Can you share a specific memory or experience from your childhood that you believe had a profound impact on shaping you as an artist?
When I was about 6 years old the class was in quiet time coloring holiday color sheets. I added images to my color sheet with the holiday tree. I added my idea of ornaments, presents under the tree, and candles. My teacher bent down asking me why I did that, I responded I didn’t know. She asked if she could show the class my color sheet, I said okay. She showed my classmates. This happened during Easter too. I added patches to bunnies, added patches of grass with eggs hidden in them. The teacher asked again why I did that, I said I don’t know. She showed my classmates my color sheet. I remembered this not too long ago, and realized I was already creating my own composition.
You mentioned that you inherited both your parents’ artistic talents and skills. Could you talk about aspects of your art where you see the influence of your mother’s sewing and beading and your father’s oil painting and sketching and in what ways do you feel you’ve carried their legacies forward in your work?
I was the eldest of five kids and my mother took me everywhere with her. We attended beading classes in the summer of 1967, I was 10 years old. Native elders paid special attention to me, bringing me treats at each class. I was in awe of the beadwork on long tables. I saw chokers, necklaces, leggings, headbands, etc. I wanted to bead like them. I learned the different daisy chain weaves, the peyote and brick stitches that summer. One night my mother was cooking dinner while beading a pair of earrings. I stood behind her watching how her hands moved and how the stitches worked. When she got up to check dinner, I sat in the chair and added beads like how I saw her bead. She’d come back and I’d move for her to continue beading. She finally asked me if I wanted to finish the earring, I said yes. Then she said she’d show me how to fringe the earring after dinner. I was excited and happy! I beaded that whole summer making necklaces and earrings. My Native neighbor that invited us to the beading classes took my beadwork to a powwow, and she sold my beadwork. I remember I made $90 that summer. For sewing, my mother sewed the girls bell bottom pants and summer outfits for my younger sisters. One summer she told me that if I wanted more new clothes, I had to sew them. We went to K-Mart and Sears to buy patterns and fabric. I sewed for months making my own outfits. I remember I sewed a red jumpsuit that zipped up in the front, pin striped pants, blouses, and more bell bottom pants.
My father oil painted and I acrylic painted. He asked me if I wanted to create a lamp with Navajo yeibeichi’s on them, I said yes. I was excited I was creating with my father. He designed the yei’s for me, and I painted them on the lamp shade. He painted a helmet with the football red skin logo on it. He put the lamp pieces together, I was happy I shared an artistic project with my father.
Denise painting in the Urban ArtWorks studio.
Indigenous art often carries cultural significance and storytelling elements. How do you integrate cultural narratives or symbolism into your artwork, and what messages or stories do you aim to convey through your creations?
I research and study historical tribal symbolism, and incorporate them into my beadwork designs and 2-dimensional artwork. I use Skokomish symbolism such as the Skok dog, sweet grass, gills of a salmon, wolves, limpets, and man and woman. I’ve been incorporating tribal language too for City of Seattle yard signs, and my Skokomish artwork. For my Navajo side I use color symbolism. I was taught that yellow corn represents being female, and white corn represents being male in Navajo culture. I also use the four sacred mountains: Sisnaajiní or Blanca Peak (blue in the east), Tsoodził or Mt. Taylor (yellow in the south), Doko’oosłííd or the San Francisco Peaks (black in the west), and Dibéntsaa or Hesperus Peak (white in the north).
It’s important to me to use and share the cultural stories and teachings that my parents gave me.
Your upbringing and heritage are rich sources of inspiration. Can you share any upcoming projects or themes you’re currently exploring in your art that are particularly meaningful to you?
I explore and experiment with ideas of expressing myself through art. I use historical photos of the two tribes I belong to, and create compositions using the tribal people in them. I do this for my beadwork and 2-dimensional artwork. Recently, I’ve been creating artwork based on a story my mother told me when I was young. The story is told to her by her grandfather, Frank Allen, he used to tell her stories of the Skokomish people. He said that there used to be gatherings near Lake Washington where local tribes came together to feast at the end of summer. I asked her how they would get to Lake Washington, she said they would canoe along the rivers. I thought about that answer, and asked how did they return? She laughed and said they canoed back.
I’m creating artwork based on this story. I have tribal people during our time standing on one side of the river, a canoe in the river traveling to the Lake Washington feast, and across the river are land animals, plants, trees, and flying animals. I want to honor, acknowledge, and give time and space to our tribal history along Lake Washington. I wanted to depict today’s tribal people watching a canoe travel to Lake Washington to feast.
Your work seems to bridge traditional Indigenous art forms with contemporary design. How do you strike a balance between preserving cultural traditions and incorporating modern elements in your creations?
I have a BFA in Graphic Design from the UW where I learned to incorporate text with image. I apply this to my beadwork and 2-dimensional art. In studying historical/traditional symbolism, I incorporate symbolism into my artwork. Such as using the Skokomish symbols for sweet grass (as the sun) and the Skok dogs and wolves in basketry in my People of the River plexiglass print. Another design I created has 3 Native women wearing shawls. On the back of the shawls, one shawl I placed a Navajo Rainbow Yei, another shawl has the Hudson Bay blanket design, and the third shawl has a Skokomish dog with sweet grass. In the distance I show a moon, a sun, and stars. This is to show that I am Navajo and Skokomish day and night. The Hudson Bay blanket is the contemporary part of the design.
Indigenous art is known for its diverse forms, from beadwork to pottery to painting. Are there any specific Indigenous art forms or techniques that you find most captivating or challenging to work with in your own practice?
It would be beadwork design. I decide on a design and I have to experiment and work out which bead weave works best with my design. Sometimes it’s a mix of bead weaves, for instance I work out the process of moving from one bead weave to another type of bead weave. It could be moving from brick stitch to peyote stitch in creating a beaded basket. Or beading a barrette, earrings, or necklace where I incorporate two bead weaves. I love a challenge though, I love working out details of a piece of art.
Your parents met at a boarding school, an important part of Indigenous history. Can you discuss how creating art can bring more awareness to generational trauma?
I’ve thought a lot about this subject matter. My parents didn’t like the boarding school systems. They’d talk about how they met at Chemawa, all the rules to students, and all the work they had to do to keep the school functioning. I have to admit, they hated it. For me right now, since it’s a subject that’s become huge, it’s too hard for me to think about the kind of art I’d create based on the stories my parents told us. I have a lot of anger but there’s a lot of hurt underneath that anger that brings tears to my eyes. Sometimes ideas dance in my head of generational trauma that me and my siblings grew up experiencing. I have to get them out of my head by sitting down and creating art of the dancing ideas. I see a lot of broad red strokes of anger, I want the strokes to lead somewhere but I haven’t decided where that is yet.
I want to express my parents’ hurt and anger, and the hurt and anger I experienced from hearing their stories.
What advice or words of encouragement would you offer to young Indigenous individuals who aspire to pursue a career in the arts?
Work at it! Experiment as much as you can with subject matter, type of medium, sketch, work on color combinations, and composition. Tell them to get used to being critiqued and that art is subjective. Listen to the critiques, there are valuable lessons in them. That not everyone is going to like your artwork but there will be plenty of people that will like and love your artwork. Research and study different art mediums and experiment with them. You will find your niche!
A yellow outline drawing on the mural panel of a group of women standing together – a printout of the Murals design is shown as a reference.
Looking forward, how do you envision your role as an Indigenous artist for years to come? What do you hope your work says to the next generation?
I’ve been experiencing my role being a female Native elder artist at 66 years of age. There are young female Native artists that message me that I inspire them to create art. At first I was surprised to receive these messages but I’m happy with my age and where I fit in the Native community as a female Native artist. I love talking to young people about beadwork and researching and studying Native symbolism, and how I work to make symbolism a part of my artwork. There was one young boy that sat with me for about an hour learning the peyote stitch while I vended in Tacoma at the In the Spirit Native Art Mart. He had such an interest in learning the bead weave that his parents stood by and watched us. I was happy that he walked away with a small peyote stitched art piece.
Using contemporary printing for my artwork such as plexiglass printing hasn’t been seen very much in Native art. I’ve been able to incorporate modern printing of my contemporary artwork of using historical photos of Native people with traditional symbolism. I also use myself sometimes as a subject/image in my artwork. I’m in the Tamanawas art piece where I’m wearing a shawl with Skokomish symbolism on the back, and the beadwork of three women wearing shawls with Navajo and Skokomish symbols, and one with the Hudson Bay blanket design. To work out artistic ideas you have, sometimes the idea for the artwork produces a piece of art and sometimes it doesn’t. You will never know if it’s a great idea if you don’t experiment.
Collaborating with Native Action Network and painting with volunteers at the Urban ArtWorks studio sounds like a unique and impactful experience. Can you share some memorable moments or insights gained during the collaborative process, and how this teamwork contributed to the meaningful representation within the mural?
I liked answering questions about what gave me the idea I had to create the mural. I explained the style I decided to use because it gave acknowledgement and space to the individual photos. Then, I was asked a question about my tribes and where I lived. Hence, the following story.
I feel proud and have gratitude for being part of the history of Seattle by being a part of our local Native history. Being raised in Seattle, my mother volunteered for AIWSL and the SIC. I was fortunate that my mother brought me with her. She drove the elderly to appointments and helped with their grocery shopping. I learned from those experiences watching her talk to the elders of what it’s like to be a part of the Seattle elderly Native community. They laughed while she drove them around Seattle, and they laughed while the elder made coffee and served coffee cake. I sat and listened while they visited and I could see that my mother was happy.
She also volunteered for the Seattle Indian Center’s food bank, hot lunch program and clothing bank. There was also a program where we made layettes and women contacted various stores for crib donations. Women reported at the gatherings the donations of onesies, blankets, diapers, and cribs for new Native mothers. Again, I feel proud and have gratitude that I was a part of that Seattle Native history, and my mother gave that to me.
My mother brought me and my siblings to various AIWSL and Seattle Indian Center locations, since the organizations moved around the city. I remember Pearl Warren sitting at her desk and asking the kids to quiet down while we played as she had a phone in her hand. After listening to her voice and seeing her demeanor, we all quieted down.
My family went to powwows on the First Avenue location, there were chairs in a circle where we sat. A drum group was nearby, and tribal people were in their regalia and dancing. Being a little girl, I remember I wanted to dance too. We also as a family went to the Christmas parties, it was a happy time. So many kids running around playing and parents visiting each other at tables setup for a meal. There was a Santa Claus that sat in a chair and kids stood in line to tell him their toy list. A picture was taken of each of us and given to our patents. My younger brother cried sitting in Santa’s lap, he was afraid of him. I have a picture of that scene, another moment captured as we participated in shared holidays. As a child, I was excited and happy to receive a gift and a stocking. My parents were happy visiting and being a part of their Native community.
As a teenager I worked in the Seattle Youth Employment Program at the Seattle Indian Center Youth Program for two summers. I had a blast being with Native teens living in Seattle. I didn’t feel that I had to protect and be on guard for myself in the general community with mainly Caucasian people. We understood each other. I was at ease with Native teens like me and some of them are friends to this day.
Your work with Native Action Network aligns with their commitment to promoting Native women’s representation and leadership. How do you see art and murals playing a role in advancing justice and community organization, particularly in the context of Native women’s legacies and empowerment?
The contemporary art I create emphasizes women, mothers, and babies. I use historical photos to create art of them because I believe they need to be always acknowledged. My father told me that he was happy I was born a female, being his first born. He was a traditional Navajo man that is a matriarchal tribe that honored women, mothers, and babies.
I create contemporary art that honors Native American women, mothers and babies for the Native American community, and the public but in my heart I do it for my father, a Dine artist that encouraged me to draw as a child.
Creating this mural was an honor for me to create. I was raised in Seattle and my mother volunteered for the AIWSL and the Seattle Indian Center. Being a part of the Seattle history that created AIWSL and the Seattle Indian Center, and my mother working with both organizations, is a distinct honor. I am inspired by my mother, alongside Pearl Warren working for women in the Seattle Native community. I look back and understand that Pearl Warren’s legacy in Seattle is huge and my mother working with both organizations with me beside her in the early 1960s through the mid-1970s was memorable and again, a huge honor.
Being a member of the Seattle Indian Center’s Youth Program gave me pride and made it easier to acknowledge in high school that I am Dine and Skokomish. The youth program provided a place for youth to gather and visit with each other. I made lifelong friends there. During the program I was a model that traveled and was paid for modeling a wing dress and other regalia. I was a member of the youth board that created monthly newsletters. I beaded necklaces and bone chokers for basketball and softball tournaments as teenagers in the youth program had basketball and softball teams that traveled and played in tournaments on reservations.
Finally, Pearl Warren’s daughter Mary Jo Butterfield helped me in the 7th grade with a racist teacher that lectured to us in class that Washington State Indians were lazy and that they were taken as slaves by Canadian tribes. He also didn’t stop boys in the class from making whooping sounds and dancing in circles during class time. Mary Jo assisted me and my mother in meeting with the Vice Principal to take care of the situation. I am thankful that Mary Jo assisted in problem solving the situation and that built a trust in our relationships with each other, which is what we all want in a strong Native led community.
A painting of four Native women carrying their babies on their backs with traditional cradleboards.