Scrimshaw, the art of etching bone and ivory, is alive today because of a handful of artisans who cling to the old fashioned medium for all the right reasons. It's a tedious, painstaking procedure that produces works of beauty that transport you back to a time when men hunted whales from sailing ships.
One of the finest, most talented scrimshanders, Michael Strzalkowski, calls the islands of the Caribbean his home. Scrim, as he's affectionately known, came to the art along a serendipitous path while messing about in boats.
Fascinated by the sailors' art in his homeland, England, he spent time sketching and learning to make nets such as safety nets and bow nets. When not engaged in tying knots he wielded a brush, painting names and decorative adornments for yachts.
In 1975, Strzalkowski caught a ride on a Swedish ketch sailing from England to the Mediterranean, then boat hopped his way to Malta, Spain, the Canaries, Barbados and, fortuitously, Bequia. Reminiscing about that landfall he remarked: "It was the first real Caribbean island for me. I'd been reading about it on the crossing; the whaling peaked my interest."
In Bequia's legendary Frangipani Bar, Strzalkowski was approached by sailor Mike Bailey. "He came up to me in the Frangi, asked if I did scrimshaw. I told him I understood it so we went round the harbor to a shack. The guy took out a whale bone, some sandpaper, a needle and showed me the basics while we drank rum."
Inspired, Scrim bought a small bag of pilot whale teeth and set to work engraving one with a leaping dolphin.
On the next chance encounter, a fellow asked him what he did for a living so he answered, I do scrimshaw. "I actually said it," marveled Strzalkowski. He pulled the piece out of his pocket and sold it, launching a successful, convoluted career.
The 1970s were a time of adventurous opportunity so Scrim sailed on with the bag of teeth, collecting more along the way.
He stitched a leather pouch, filled it with carved work and set about marketing it. "By the time I got to Antigua I was getting more confident," says Scrim "I could go into the Admirals Inn, socialize, and sell a couple pieces. I could pay the rent."
The art medium grew in scope and size from small slices to large, entire teeth; black coral came into play. "It's taken me on a path; it's become more sculptural."
Using a limited, obscure substance turned Strzalkowski into a collector who, for 30 years, has been gathering teeth, bones and tusks. He described how he purchased 400 pounds of whale teeth when it was legal, adding: "I still have the receipt."
At a workbench in a tiny shop in Falmouth Harbor, he pulled samples of raw materials from drawers: boars tusks, mastodon bones and explained, "Scrimshaw as an art … it's so obscure. It's not like an industry that threatens the earth like the ivory trade in Africa. It's an out of the mainstream craft that recycles pieces from the Victorian era."
The shop, which doubles as a studio, brims with finished work. Pendants, earrings, brooches, paperweights and cane and knife handles are scattered amidst tools and raw material. Each finished piece tells a story written by Scrim's hand.
One pendant bore the names of a loving couple. "They ordered it but never came back," he chuckled. "I use it now as a sample." According to Strzalkowski, The classic commission is to carve the image of a beloved boat emblazoned with the name. That kind of obsession, a love for a vessel, he knows all
In 1989 the 53-foot Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, Marguerite T, became his home and love. "I thought I could just live on the boat and sail around, do my art."
Scrim took that tack for a few years, racking up a logbook full of incredible voyages but the old gal, with 90 years and numerous miles under her keel, needed currency and courage, so he sailed her from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia, Canada. With the help of like minded sailors, the vessel began a rebuild that lasted three years. Prideful, he notes, "She was 100 years old when we finished."
After ten years of dedication, the boat passed to new hands allowing Strzalkowski time and energy to focus on his art. "Here, with a bench, or in my house, it's focused; it works." Gold, bronze and silver, jewels and gems are used in many jewelry designs, some of which are designed for Ralph Lauren.
Maintaining the scrimshander tradition, each spring Scrim packs a bag of tools and catches a ride across the Atlantic. "I still work onboard, on watch, which is how it all began."
For more information visit Scrim's store in Falmouth Harbour, Antigua, or go to: www.scrimbones.com
Jan Hein and her husband, artist Bruce Smith, divide their time between the Caribbean the Pacific Northwest with a boat and a life at each end. Visit: www.brucesmithsart.com