51. My Scrimshaw Story

Published on 16 September 2023 at 07:36

©2023 Robert Sickles

You may not know it to look at me now… but I was once an idler, a waster of time.

“Best Mates”  detail ~ R. Sickles scrimshaw 1987. Mammoth ivory cribbage board, 3” x 10”

In slow times, between the intense work of sailing the big ships and processing their catch, old-time whalers with a creative knack told tall tales, made music, played games, and carved toys and models. Some were also inclined to scratch designs and pictures on pieces of polished whale and walrus bone and ivory. Scrimshaw was what the whalers called it, and a scrimshander, according to some sources, was also a term that meant “idler” or “waster of time.” Sometimes the ivory art was incorporated into amusing or useful objects like jumping jacks, cribbage boards, cases for sewing notions, kitchen gadgets, letter openers, knife handles, and walking sticks—gifts for the family and girlfriend back home, or to barter for drink and such once ashore.

“JAPAN - Bound to the USA.” 19th century scrimshaw, 6” long sperm whale tooth.

After the American folk art of scrimshaw had been rediscovered in the 1960’s, thanks to JFK’s interest in it, modern artists replicated traditional Yankee whaler styles and themes—square-riggers on the high seas, famous sea battles, portraits of famous people, pretty girls from faraway places, whaling action scenes, patriotic flags and mottos on scrolled banners.

Then along comes a west coast upstart, Bellingham, Washington, a place where a number of artists came to explore polished ivory as a surface for art as wonderful as any canvas or paper. And the subject matter could go anywhere beyond traditional. Ivory is a tough material that can hold up to very fine detail as well as heavy work. Using a sharp blade or a steel stylus, one could etch detailed drawings and add full color with a wide range of shading, to almost photographic clarity, and all in miniature. Inks or oil paints are rubbed into many layers of etching. Hours of careful work go into each piece, and depending on the size and quality of the ivory and the subject matter, an eager market brought good prices for the work.  This is what I embarked upon in the late 70’s, when I was finished with musical instrument making, and my friend Kelly Mulford got me started with scrimshaw. I wrote about this in my story about him in July. My full-time career in scrimshaw spanned about 13 years.

My RRS monogram logo and my tools & raw materials.

Some ivory was provided by my clients, but I also purchased a lot from traders who had contacts with Alaskan residents and tribal groups. The Alaskans combed the back country and shorelines for ancient mammoth and walrus tusks. When springtime streams washed out a muddy bank, broken pieces and whole tusks of woolly mammoth ivory were exposed from the permafrost where it had been preserved for 10,000 years. Also, on certain islands and coastal areas in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, archeology sites yielded walrus tusks and ancient artifacts that were delicately colored by minerals in the soil. Only the Alaskan native people were allowed to dig on the islands, and many beautiful old harpoon heads, sled runners, snow knives, net-making tools and other implements made of ivory were brought down for our scrimshaw artwork.  

Cutting into the “bark” of a crusty-looking piece of ancient broken tusk, I was looking for that creamy off-white to light brown ivory that was preserved enough to be workable, with coloration and just a few tiny cracks to make an interesting surface to scrim. I learned to be wary of unusable material—tusks that had been exposed to thawing temperatures and become split into thin, chalky layers. A rare mammoth tusk might be solid enough to be cut into flat slabs, quite a treat after working on pieces of ivory that were curved, conical or uneven. Walrus ivory also picked up beautiful patinas from the ground where it lay and had very interesting shapes—broken pieces or weapons and implements created long ago by Alaskan natives. I began with a pencil sketch on the polished ivory, followed by lightly scratching the outlines of the drawing with my stylus, then gradually filling color into foreground and background details with a combination of cross-hatching, line drawing and stippling.

“Brown Bears Fishing for Salmon on McNeil River” ~ R. Sickles 1982. Artifact Inuit digging tool, walrus ivory 13”. The riverbank is formed by an edge of naturally brown coloration.

I collected magazines on wildlife photography and nautical history books for reference. Sometimes customers would send their photos of people, pets, yachts, scenery or lighthouses they wanted me to work from. Jim Kelso, a friend who is a skilled engraver, asked me occasionally to create carved and scrimshawed ivory pistol and knife handles for his incredible collectors’ pieces. A typical pistol grip might have a famous Indian chief or Western explorer on one side, and a bald eagle or bronco buster on the other side.

I developed relationships with a number of private collectors who commissioned larger pieces for their unique interests. One was a fan of Rudyard Kipling who asked me to illustrate three short stories on different types of ivory—one story about India on elephant tusk, another about Eskimos scrimmed on walrus ivory, and the third story about whaling on large whale teeth.

A lot of my scrimshaw was carried on commission by an agent to be sold in galleries and gift shops. Early on, as well as nautical subjects, I did a lot of “Critter” art. I must have drawn every species of mammal and bird, even the homely ones. These were usually intended for pendants, rings, lapel pins, belt buckles and money clips. This was quick money for me; I could make three or four small pieces on a good day that would net $100 or so, which I deemed to be living well!  

I entered arts & crafts fairs in a couple of towns, and was invited to participate in artists-in-action events in a few shopping malls. I set up a display case and workbench so shoppers could see how I worked. On-site sales were modest, but I did well with special orders and met some long-term clients. Besides setting pieces in custom gold and silver jewelry, I also used exotic hardwoods to make display stands, boxes and frames for larger works.

Several times, I entered pieces in competitions where scrimshaw was a judged category of nautical art, and won an award from the 1988 Mystic Seaport Maritime Art Competition. I had the honor of having my work reproduced (greatly enlarged) on a limited run art print calendar—an annual competition offered by a print shop in my town.

“Pacific Northwest Seaport” ~ R. Sickles 1986. Mammoth ivory, 3” x 4”

In Seattle, The Frye Art Museum arranged to mount a one-man show of my work, so I borrowed several of my pieces from collectors, friends and my family. The showing was highlighted on local TV and newspapers.

The Second Scrimshaw Connection,” a book by Bob Engnath about modern scrimshanders, was published in 1985 with my work on the front cover and inside.

Upon seeing the book, a native Torres Strait Islander from Australia wrote and asked to meet and interview me. He’d received a grant to travel around the world to study all the artistic uses of materials from marine wildlife. I’d never seen anyone quite like this before. He was very tall and wide, nearly filling my front door, a striking, black-skinned man with full beard and a heavy bush of black hair. Not an African, he had Melanesian-South Pacific features, like someone from New Guinea or Borneo. He smiled a lot and spoke softly with an educated Aussie accent. His sport coat and black t-shirt set off an ornately carved ivory pendant in the shape of a symbolic fish hook. His own tribe were traditionally fishermen, and they crafted beautiful ceremonial items and implements from seashell, dugong ivory, shark teeth and tortoise shell, most of which was plundered and carried off to museums. He hoped to get some of that back to revive his people’s heritage. A most interesting visitor!

By 1990 I was riding a wave, and imagined a long-term project: a series of scrimshaws that would illustrate a work of fiction I planned to write about the lives of a quirky, imaginary town, the vestige of a once-thriving fishing/shipbuilding/lumber seaport on Puget Sound. This endeavor never came to pass, and an emotional turning point loomed ahead for me.

I knew there were still successful scrimshaw artists at work, but in ’91, after 13 years, the heyday was over for me. People ask me why I stopped doing scrimshaw. It’s not hard to answer.

  • Laws that protect endangered marine species were strengthened and enforced more stringently. Even though mammoth and ancient walrus ivory are essentially a mineral or fossil resource, their association with the poaching trade diminished the public’s acceptance of scrimshaw in some of my best markets. Income from gift shops in California stopped. My sources and my outlets were going dry. Something disheartening was popping up—laser etched images on ivory substitute, some kind of resin. We called it “simshaw.” It was threatening to overtake scrimshaw in the lower end shops. At a glance, it looked real and was inexpensive.
  • In 1991, three of my main clients quit on me. One private collector stopped calling. He was my true patron! I later learned he’d died and left his entire art collection to his indifferent son who dumped it for quick cash; a California individual had a screamin’-conniption meltdown because I was taking longer to complete a commissioned project than I’d estimated. He cancelled the order and said he was sick of all scrimshanders… and he was selling everything! My third customer, a retailer, faded out after he had to sell one of his art galleries in Hawaii. I was back to knocking out unimaginative little eagles and ships on money clips for just one buyer. She told me, “Don’t put any thought or time into these, we’re looking for quick turns, you know, impulse purchases.” What a downfall!
  • Sitting for long hours, gripping the tools and working under magnification was taking a toll on my body, especially hands, shoulders and neck. My eyes were tired. More than any other reason, I’d had it up to here with the physical strain.

Emotionally and artistically, I was dead in the water, I wanted to withdraw into my man cave. Linda said, rather firmly, “Sorry, Bub, you cannot retire now, if you can't rebuild enthusiasm for your business, you need to get a new career.” 

I loved the praise and acclaim that came along with scrimshaw—the satisfaction of making a thing of beauty that someone would treasure and hand down for generation. But I have no regret about leaving it; in fact, when I look through the photo album of my work, I honestly feel I’d done everything I wanted to do in that medium. Off to art school, and on to a new job as a graphic designer. The change was hard… and good!

I tip me hat, raise me ale, and sing a shanty of the sea for all ye still a-scrimmin’. Lord, love ye!

That’s enough writing! I have put together a slideshow of old photos of my work. Enjoy!

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Jim Kelso
9 months ago

Robert, great to see so much work that I have not seen since moving in 1980. I enjoyed our brief time and work together. Thanks for the “chapeau”!

David Black
9 months ago

Amazing high quality -- self-taught artists are the best, and you are an exemplar of that principle.

9 months ago

Wow, Robert. What a post and such beautiful work. Time for an exhibit, maybe a scrimshaw gathering at Worthington Park. Share your talent.

Rick Heilman
9 months ago

Who could have guessed that little, snot-nosed Bobby, with whom I grew up, had that much talent and imagination locked up in his soul. A gift to us all.

Kathy M
9 months ago

It was a sad day in the scrimshaw world when you decided to quit. You are an amazing artist and did some beautiful work! I was delighted to see my Killer whale in your pictures and was so sad to hear the collector who passed had an unappreciative heir! I think he was the fellow we met on a flight who was wearing your work on his belt buckle and bolo tie...I could tell it was yours as he walked up the isle on the plane. Gave us all sorts of visiting material on the flight!

Jean Hill- Miller
9 months ago

You are such an amazing artist!