The Art of Scrimshaw Predates the Era of Moby-Dick, But Will It Survive Much Longer?

No 86

“...you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure.

–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Most people think of Nantucket, Massachusetts as an exclusive New England beach resort. But in the late 18th and 19th centuries, this dune-walled island was something very different: the hub of America’s booming whale industry. Whale oil was the petroleum of its era, and Nantucket was its Dallas.

It is an ambivalent legacy. Considered heroic in its time, whaling was in retrospect a bloody business. The frenzied market for whale products drove a handful of majestic species to near-extinction, even as it provided livelihoods and illuminated the world’s great cities. Either way, though, whaling—its distinctive culture, its enormous profits—did much to shape coastal New England into what it is today.

In the island’s historic downtown district, one longtime Nantucket resident etches those links into being on a daily basis. Mike Vienneau is a scrimshander, meaning that he carves onto whale bone. His craft dates back to the early colonial era, when Yankee whalers (inspired by Native experts) first took to the coastal waters. Within the context of the culture of white settlers, at least, it is arguably the original American folk art.

The fine-lined delicacy of antique scrimshaw is a poignant counterpart to the messy savagery of killing and gutting whales. As depicted in Moby-Dick, New England sailors voyaged thousands of miles from home and spent years at a time at sea. They used their ample downtime to create ivory offerings for real and imagined sweethearts; according to Nantucket-based scrimshaw expert Nina Hellman, many of the images carved by bored whalers were of women, which they stenciled from book illustrations and newspaper advertisements.

Scrimshaw flourished as a different type of memento in the 20th century. Only in the postwar era, when tourists started flocking to old whaling towns like Nantucket, did the craft become viable as a fulltime profession. Now, half a century later, its future is uncertain.

For one thing, the materials are dwindling. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, in effect since 1972, bars scrimshanders from acquiring new ivory. As a result, Vienneau carves entirely on old stock. He has been collecting it since the seventies, acquiring pieces from aging Nantucketers whose collections date to the days when local gift shops sold whale teeth out of barrels for a few dollars apiece. He reckons he has stockpiled enough to keep him carving until his eyesight gets too weak for him to stay at it.

His hands might give out first. After four decades of scrimshanding, Vienneau has arthritis in his thumbs; he suffers from numbness and sore joints. “I’m always beating myself up—the right hand doing things to the left hand,” he explains.

Vienneau divides his work into two categories. There is the “dirty” job of polishing teeth, which he does at home using power tools. The “clean” work of carving he performs at his gallery on Warren Street. Once the coarse outer layer is removed, he decides what to put on it. A schooner? A breaching whale? He’ll make a sketch first, in pencil. He then uses an X-Acto knife to etch straight lines; for the curved lines he uses a carbide scribe, which is less likely to slip than the sailing awls that whalers relied on back in the day. He rubs India into the etchings, and makes his own stippling tools by sticking needles into wooden handles. As a younger man, he produced about one piece of scrimshaw a day. Now, at 60, his rate is closer to one a week; a large piece might take him two.

When he started doing the job at age 19, there were plenty of other scrimshanders on Nantucket. Though self-taught, he learned by studying the work of one Robert Spring. The undisputed master, Vienneau argues, was William Gilkerson, who died in 2015. Vienneau has taught students. But, he says, “Whether they pursue it is another thing.”

As pre-ban whale ivory becomes rarer and more expensive—and ivory regulations threaten to get stricter—craftspeople have taken to carving onto resin alternatives. Vienneau has tried walrus ivory, mammoth tusk, and cow bone. Though defenders of traditional scrimshaw point out that whale teeth are—unlike, say, elephant tusks—merely a byproduct of hunting, the material still has its detractors.

“It’s a dying art. The raw material is not available, and rightfully so,” says Hellman, who has co-authored a book on scrimshaw, A Mariner’s Fancy. Fine historical examples can be found at maritime museums like those in Nantucket and New Bedford. But even when the raw material was most abundant, centuries ago, the unappreciated art of scrimshaw had a preservation problem. Says Hellman, “I have a theory that a lot of it is at the bottom of the ocean.”

For further reading: Philip Hoare, Leviathan, or the Whale. (London: Fourth Estate, 2008.)

Credits

  • Director & Cinematographer - Ben Louis Nicholas
  • Editor - Ben Louis Nicholas
  • Producer - Darrell Hartman and Oliver Hartman
  • Original Music - Bryan Scary and Giulio Carmassi
  • Associate Producer - Mark Pizzi
  • Assistant Camera - Mark Pizzi
  • Sound Recording - Floyd Kellogg
  • Sound Design & Mix - Josh Wilson
  • Color - Carlos Flores

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