As a boy growing up in a small Quaker community near Trenton, New Jersey, I was surrounded by history. Our house had been built around the time of the Revolution and the Meeting House in our town commons had a cannon ball cemented into the brick wall where it had been fired on by the British. We took school trips to battlefields and other places important in the early history of this country. My imagination was sparked by the exhibits and dioramas and historical paintings which I liked to try to copy with my own drawings. After seeing the 1956 movie of “Moby Dick” we took a summer trip to New England and visited the maritime museum at Mystic Seaport. I was excited to find out more about the men and ships from that time but I was especially fascinated with the old paintings of whaling scenes and scrimshaw done on whale’s teeth.
When I was ten my family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and I found a new culture and history to explore. My Father opened a gallery and picture framing shop where I spent much of my time during the summers. I liked to draw and paint and getting to know many of the local artists encouraged me to seriously consider a career as an artist.
In 1975 I married my wife, Nancy, and a year later we moved to Bellingham, Washington to see the Northwest. I began attending art classes at Western Washington University but when our first daughter was born a paying job became a more immediate necessity. An ad in the local paper with the heading “Artists Wanted” caught my eye. It was for the Alaskan Silver and Ivory Company (ASI) which made handcrafted scrimshaw jewelry. I was hired as a scrimshander and was soon learning the craft that had caught my imagination years earlier.
The work was production oriented and tedious, but the working environment was inspiring. The twenty or so artists there along with others that had come and gone ince its start in 1973 had created a renaissance in scrimshaw that served as an incubator for creativity and innovation. Much of what came to be known as the “West Coast” school of scrimshaw came out of it – the use of full color, a break from the traditional themes, and a refinement of techniques and craftsmanship to achieve realism with intricate detail.
In 1980 ASI closed down but there still was a growing market for larger display pieces on fossil walrus and mammoth ivory. Some ASI artists joined other independent scrimshanders in the freelance market. I was fortunate to be invited to share a studio with several of the best: Kelly Mulford, Karen Petersen, Mary Gregg Byrne, Gary Dorning, Chris Lehwalder and Margie Meyer (Willits). This presented me with the opportunity to learn from them and refine my skill and develop my own style. Today, most of the Bellingham scrimshanders have moved on to other parts of the country, or to work in another mediums, or on to other careers entirely.