In between heroic bouts with leviathans, whaling voyages in the 18th and 19th centuries were epically dull. Sailors often got stuck in the doldrums for weeks with little to do, and this forced idleness gave rise to the art of scrimshaw: pictures scratched into whale bones, teeth, and the bonelike material called baleen, then brought into sharp relief with rubbed-in dyes. Colleen Hubbard reports in Meatpaper (Volume 16) on the ancient seafarers’ art and its modern adherents, who are putting new twists on the tradition.
Many sailor-artists of yore stuck to predictable themes—ships, whale hunt scenes, ports of call—but also favored patriotic icons such as flags and eagles. Scrimshaw artists often deployed their artistic talents in the service of practicality and romance, producing “decorated pie crimpers, napkin rings, yarn winders, rolling pins, and little boxes that held sewing articles,” writes Hubbard. “A busk, which was a long, straight piece of baleen used to stiffen women’s corsets, was another popular item that men created on board ships and then presented to their sweethearts at home.”
Cut to today, when the scrimshaw artist Occulter takes an edgier approach to sea subjects with his “loopy, creepy pendants show[ing] drowning men, giant squids embracing whales, and skeletons” and another, Noel Green, has gone totally pop culture, etching a Star Wars scene on a mastodon ivory piece for the owner of the world’s largest private Star Wars collection.
Not every modern scrimshander, as scrimshaw artists are known, feels a need to break new ground, though. History-buff types recycle the old themes on knife handles, gun grips, and powder horns for muzzle-loading rifles.
Writes Hubbard, “Why does scrimshaw appeal to practitioners now? For one thing, there’s the sense of its being an American art, one that is as stitched into our heritage as Pennsylvania Dutch quilts. To some, though, it may be the sense of romance, of story, and of longing: to run a finger over a polished whale’s tooth and feel the story of a young man at sea, wishing for shore or for home, for food beyond hardtack, for the comfort of his family or his lover.”