UNION — The art of Scrimshaw is as old as the American whaling industry when sailors began to etch art onto whale’s teeth using knives or needles.
Because Scrimshaw was first practiced by sailors working on whaling ships out of New England it is considered by some to be the only art form that originated in America. At that time the whale’s teeth had no commercial and the ship’s captain would give them to the sailors. Whaling voyages could last for years and the seamen needed to have some form of diversion to keep from going stir crazy. Creating art gave them that diversion.
The word “scrimshaw” is thought to be derived from a Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time” because the sea captains believed that it was foolishness for a sailor to sit and scratch pictures into a whale’s tooth and to do so was a waste of one’s time. That “waste of time” led to an original Americana art form that is still alive and well because of people like Steve McKellar.
“I stumbled into Scrimshaw twenty-two years ago because of problems with my back,” said McKellar. “I was a work-a-holic and couldn’t do much because of seven back surgeries. Scrimshaw allowed me to work hard and keep busy.”
Scrimshaw, as practiced today, is produced on many different types of material.
“I still use whales’ teeth when I can get them, but I also do my etchings on elephant ivory (pre-1971 when ivory was banned for use), mammoth ivory from Russia, fossil ivory from Alaska and the teeth from hippos, wart hogs and wild boar. I also use cow and deer hooves and antlers from deer and elk,” explained McKellar.
One of the most important parts of the process is the preparation of the pieces’ surface. Before any etching can be done the material has to be sanded and polished to remove any imperfections that would allow the coloring to show up where it’s not wanted. This preparation process can take up to two hours. Only then can the artist etch the image into the piece and add the color.
McKellar related that this part of the procedure can be very pain-staking.
“When I begin my etching, that’s when I pull out the microscope,” he said. “I usually work from a picture and the microscope lets me see the fine detail so that I can etch it into the material. I work on parts of the picture and never see the full image when I’m working this way. After the etching is finished I’ll add the color and, hopefully, have a finished piece that someone will be proud to have in a collection or to display at home.”
McKellar’s Scrimshaw work is being displayed as part of the Union County Arts Council’s 2013 Local Artists’ Showcase. This exhibit allows all area artists to bring in samples of their work for display and sale during the holiday season.
“We’ll have all kinds of art on display,” said UCAC coordinator Jackie Senn. “Over the years we’ve had fine art in all mediums, any craft that you can think of, as well as jewelry-making, woodworking and everything in between. This is a great way for a beginning artist to show a couple of pieces and see how people respond.”
UCAC will be accepting pieces for the Local Artists’ Showcase from now through Nov. 8. If you are interested in showing your work, please call for a signup/inventory sheet. The show will run from Nov. 12 through the end of the year.
For more information about entering the show call 864-429-2817 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.