© 2023 Robert Sickles
Coming About to Kelly Mulford
It was a few years after our crazy times of roaming the country as artists and musicians, and after our separation and happy reunion in Seattle. My friend Dave Smith announced he was moving to Bellingham, changing his name to Kelly Mulford in respect for his adoptive parents, and planning to attend classes at University or Western Washington! Oh, my God, That was all very surprising! It felt like we were saying goodbye again—in more ways than one. But I wished him well wherever his path took him, and by whatever name he chose for himself.
We visited and wrote to each other many times—it was a new wrinkle, having an ongoing long-distance friendship with him. I was glad that he seemed to be enjoying his new community. Some of Kelly’s letters are works of art in themselves, decorated with poems, woodcuts and cartoons. He wrote that he had a new friend who had some kind or workhorse boat, and they'd come up with a plan to make a living by salvaging logs from beaches and towing them to a lumber mill. I doubt if that ever got anywhere, but Kelly had fun doodling it out for me.
Bellingham is also where he became a scrimshander—an artist in the medium of scrimshaw, the old Yankee whaler’s folk art of etching and inking pictures on polished ivory. In the 80’s, there was a renaissance of the artform and my innovative friend was among those gifted pioneers. Young artists were taking scrimshaw in new directions, including: painstaking detail, full color realism using colored inks or oil paints, emphasis on using ancient "fossil" walrus and mammoth ivory, and a much wider range of subject matter than traditional nautical themes. And the market for their work was very hot!
Kelly Mulford scrimshaw on fossil walrus ivory, 1989
At first working for a business know as Alaska Silver and Ivory Co., Kelly was among several artists who produced loads of small-size pieces, mainly for jewelry settings—eagles, seagulls, lions, sailing ships, butterflies... the stuff people want to wear on a 1" to 2" ring, pendant or belt buckle. My friend was doing quite well at earning a living and had a steady life with a fiancée and future plans and everything. Achieving renown in the medium, he was creating larger display pieces, then joined a thriving Bellingham group that formed their own co-op studio. Amazing stuff came out of that place!
After my harpsichord-making partnership with Ken Bakeman dematerialized, Kelly showed up with a rescue plan for me, and my scrimshaw career was launched. Kelly’s work in that medium was incredible—my admiration of his talent propelled me and occasionally, my envy of it blocked me. I am long-retired from my own scrimshaw work, which I guess would be described as West Coast style or a spin-off of the Bellingham school. This is something I should write about another time. Below, some examples of Kelly's work.
Kelly Mulford’s scrimshaw art.
The subject matter for the large piece lower left (4"x5", white ivory, framed in a koa wood stand, 1997) started out as my unfinished pen & ink drawing on large paper, intended to be sold as art prints. I was working from a stitch-together composition of photos I’d taken in Mystic Seaport. When Kelly was having a cash flow problem, I paid him to use my photos and ivory and work up a scrimshaw piece for my own collection. My design, his work. He added his self-portrait, lower right, as an old mariner carving a piece of ivory.
When I married school teacher Linda, Kelly was my Best Man. He then married Ann, a bank employee, a short time later. They bought a house in Seattle a few miles from us and surrealistically, the Sickles and Mulfords shared mixed drinks and backyard barbecues, lightheartedly conversing on flower gardening, wine, cats and movies. We went for a sail on Lake Union in his little boat. He'd illustrated a terrific book on sailing: (On the Wind: Mastering the Art of Sailing) Wow… were we the same guys who bummed their way to Denver, decades ago? I was stunned by how normal and middle-class we’d become!
At one such barbecue, Kelly and I had a pointless disagreement that extended into another period of estrangement. I discovered a long time later that Kelly and Ann divorced, and he was living in Texas! After I rekindled contact, we spoke often and exchanged many emails, finding that our old brotherhood was still there. He was running his parents' mobile home park with little time left for artwork, but often going over to Austin to meet up with with musicians he knew.
With the breadth of his interests and talents, Kelly had friends, colleagues and fans from many areas. He fostered new artists and continued to learn from the great classics. He played with musicians of many traditions, and he learned about boats from old sailors at the pub, argued brush technique at the art gallery, and debated philosophy on the campus.
Several months after Kelly’s passing, a gathering at a Bellingham pub brought together family and friends from all walks of his life. Someone read a poem to us. A few musicians came and it started to look and sound like an Irish wake. There were many touching remembrances and tributes, some limericks and laughs, and pints raised in his memory. Everyone seemed to know a different Kelly. I carried in a portfolio of very early drawings he’d given me and spoke briefly from a viewpoint that few, if any, knew of. I shared my memory of "Dave Smith," when he was a vagabond misfit in search of an artistic niche, a school and family dropout, and an energetic kid, brimming with curiosity, looking for any road that led joyously away from a conventional life. With all his life's chapters finished, it was quite a success story. You have fair skies, run downwind to home port, my friend!
Kelly Mulford 1949-2011
Acknowledgements and Afterword
I thank artist Matt Stothart for hunting down the photos of Kelly for this piece. Regrettable, I had none of my own to post!
Except for the one piece from my own collection, images of Kelly's scrimshaw were borrowed from www.scrimshawcollector.com, where some of his work is available for purchase.
To any readers who knew Kelly, forgive me if I have the sequence wrong or left anything out, I only know what I think I know. My intent is to give the gist of the story as a memoir, maybe someone else will do the research and write the definitive biography!