Friday, January 13, 2006

Charles W. Morgan pt. 11

I mentioned scrimshaw a few posts back. This is an example. There weren't many recreational options aboard a whaling vessel, but scrimshaw was one of them. Basically, you take a piece of whale ivory and scratch on it with one of the big needles used for sewing sails. Then you rub ink or soot or what have you into the scratches, and wipe away the excess. The result is an etching on the tooth surface.

There is some very beautiful work done in scrimshaw, and it's a craft that I've been fascinated with since childhood. It's safe to say that most of it's praticioners had no formal arts training, but there's a lot of very good drawing on these teeth. Interestingly, even when the drawings of people and whales and clouds are awkwardly realized, the rigging on the ships is always precise. Whereas I get easily confused by what seems to be an endless and arbitrary cat's crade of line, these sailors knew that rigging with exhausting, blistering intimacy of someone whose had to run all that rope, and whose lives depended on it being run correctly.

When I was in high school or middle school, I got a hold of what I thought was a small disc of whale ivory. I'm pretty sure trade in whale ivory is prohibited, and, looking back, am positive that what I actually had was a piece of ivory-colored plastic. Anyway, I had an etching needle and a bottle of ink, so I tried my hand at it. Of course, I drew a whaling ship. My memory tells me the results where pretty good. But, when it comes to my own art, my memory is a filthy liar.

When I was working on this series of drawings, there was a chance that they were going to get published as an artist's sketchbook, in which case I planned on naming the book Scrimshaw. I guess the series of sketchbooks wasn't doing very well, however, and whaling wasn't considered the red-hot subject matter that would revive the line. But I'm pretty sure more people have seen these images in blog form than the entire proposed print run of the sketchbook, so I'm happy.

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