Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass March1998

Scrimshaw Art in Bequia
By Norma Faria

Scrimshaw is the traditional seaman's art of etching seafaring scenes on whale's teeth, bones and other hard materials like oak wood. A maker of scrimshaw is called a scrimshander.

In its heyday during the 1800s, scrimshaw was a true maritime art. Seamen, especially those working on whale-hunting square riggers, had plenty of time on their hands as they journeyed to and from the whale grounds.

On the whale's teeth they had collected on previous voyages, they etched in with sail needles those scenes with which they were intimately involved: whale hunts, other sailing vessels, the mythical mermaid.

Later, they would give their work away to their loved ones, barter with the local tavern owner for a few drinks, trade to a woman of the night for a few moments of companionship or generally try to sell them.

Now, with the decline of the whaling industry and with modern-day fishermen and merchant mariners passing their free time watching videos, scrimshaw is almost all done ashore. The bucking, cramped musty seamen's quarters in the fo'c'sle (scrimshaw was also sometimes done on deck) have been replaced with well-lit and airy studios.

Some of the modern day practitioners of the art have little connection with the sea. Others, such as Sam McDowell, do.

McDowell, one of the world's top scrimshaw artists, who maintains a winter home and studio at Paget Farm on Bequia's south coast, first came to the Caribbean on board the charter schooner Ramona during the 1960s. He was interested in the maritime tradition of the area. In the early 1970s, he built a house above a pebble beach overlooking Isle a Quatre (pronounced "Oily Cot" by the islanders) and other Grenadine islands to the south. It was to nearby Petit Nevis that the Bequia whalers would tow the whale carcasses to be cut up.

McDowell paints as well; some of his canvasses (the scene of the Port Elizabeth, Bequia, jetty with the then-ferry schooner Friendship Rose offloading, for example) show his maritime interest.

Scrimshaw is painstaking work. That's why a big magnifying glass and light hang over McDowell's working table. As with the seamen's work of yesterday, most of his scrimshaw is set on or around the seashore.

It's not politically correct now to talk of whale killing, but where does he get his whale teeth? People are going after whale watching now, although the International Whaling Commission allows an annual quota of two whales for Bequia's indigenous whale fishery. McDowell replies: "Micarta". That's an imitation ivory. It's made of a high-tech plastic. It's a good substitute. Camel bone (they seem to be quite plentiful despite the new rigours of camel racing these days) may also be used. India ink is put into the scratches to highlight the etching.

Some of the art is utilitarian. He has a line of knife handles made from micarta which cruising yachtspeople buy.

Prices vary. You pay for the labour and name of the artist. Many pieces end up as displays on the cabin bulkhead or over the fireplace back home. A US$500 to $600 knife is not something you would drop into your pocket as you climb the mast to free a jammed halyard.

Certain original scrimshaw pieces made by seafarers during the last century are now collector's items. "The price from the whaler Susan will go $90,000 per item," says McDowell. "Value increases with the artist's name and that of the ship."

Sam and his Bermuda-born wife Donna also recreate another form of 19th century sailor's art: "Sailor's Valentines". These were gifts made of seashells inlaid in a small box.

Some of the seafarers bought their valentines from handicraft shops on Caribbean islands before they hoisted sail for their homeport. This wasn't done to pull a fast one and pass off the handiwork as their own work, but simply to save time. Some just didn't have the talent or the patience.

McDowell mentioned the example from the B.H. Belgrave store in Barbados whose label identified it as a "Dealer in Marine Specialties and Native Manufacturer in Fancy Work." As with scrimshaw, antique sailor's valentines are now sold for prices hardly imagined by the invariably anonymous sailors and island craftpeople who made them long ago.

An art teacher at Princeton High School in New Jersey at one time, McDowell has formal training as an artist. He's originally from Carmel, California.

He feels the Caribbean needs art from its own people as well. He reasons: "I feel there is a hunger for works by local artists. The example of Canute Caliste of Carriacou shows that people worldwide are interested."

The McDowells would like to expand the sharing of their skills to local aspiring artists. They've taken on apprentices and will continue to do so as circumstances allow.

Copyright© 1998 Compass Publishing