The Scrimsham and the Nerd

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When I was a teen, from time to time the mall near my home would hold events; local choirs, or art exhibits. I have met some wonderful people at events like that. Two in particular stand out in my life. This is the story of one of them.

I was walking through the mall, looking at the art exhibits. Paintings, drawings, macrame, the usual stuff you see in a mall show. But then I saw the most curious booth. Piece upon piece of tiny bits of ivory of some sort, decorated with these wonderfully intricate drawings. There were some large tusks, maybe six inches tall and four inches in diameter, also covered in this very fine, very delicate artwork.

Behind the table was an old gentleman. He would be old even by my standards now. Tiny and frail, with a cane leaning against his chair. Long wispy white hair, rather thin on top but still enough to call it a head of hair, pulled back into a pony tail. A scraggily white beard was cropped fairly close, but clearly not tended to daily. He held in one hand a small piece of ivory, in the other some sort of tool that looked like an awl. His head was bent forward on his chest, as he snored softly. All these very expensive pieces out on display and the owner was sound asleep.

I hung around his booth for a while, in part because I wanted to know more about these wonderful pieces of art. In part because I felt for the guy. He needed someone to watch his stuff for him. After a while he gently woke and continued scratching at the ivory with the awl as if he had never stopped, never drifted off. A few moments later he noticed me.

His name was Norwood Marlow. The art is called scrimshaw. Whalers in the 18th century would use every bit of their catch. The whale’s teeth, which is an ivory, was used for all sorts of things from buttons and cane handles to cutlery handles and drawer knobs. But it was also used as an art form. They would take a riggers needle – a rather large sowing needle – and mount it in a dowel. They polished the tusk with sand, using progressively finer and finer grain until the tusk had a smooth, glossy finish. With their needle tool they would scratch scenes into the tusk. You could not see the scratches at first. It is just white on white. So they would tap out the ashes from their pipes or collect the ashes from their cigars, rub some of the ash onto their thumb and then rub the ash across where they just scratched the tusk.

The ash would stay in the scratch, creating a black line on the field of white. A line as thin and fine as a human hair. Scratch after scratch, ash upon ash, line after line they would build up images, snapshots of their lives. They would take these to port where they would get some India Ink and rub the work, which would make the lines darker and more permanent. Then they would sell the item to pick up some extra coin.

Whale ivory was illegal to get in the 70’s, thank goodness. You were allowed to purchase existing stocks only. Norwood had been collecting for decades. Completed pieces, half done pieces, and untouched tusks. Untouched whale teeth he sliced and cut into very small pieces so he could maximize the use of the item, creating small lockets and jewelry, key chains and belt buckles.

He found he could work on elephant ivory but it was equally difficult to get. He found he could work on stag horn which was easy to obtain but never as smooth or strong or as brilliant as ivory. He even did a wonderfully large piece on an ostrich egg.

I talked with him for hours. He told me how he had learned the craft from reading old captains logs and original, handwritten whalers’ journals. I came back for the entire week of this particular show, fascinated by the art. On the last day he asked if I would like to learn the craft. I most certainly did. He gave me his home address and invited me over a few days after the show was done, to give him some time to recover.

His home was amazing. A tiny house in downtown. There was a four-foot tall statue of a sperm whale in an overgrown front yard. The front door had an original brass porthole in it. The thing weighed so much he had to have the door frame reinforced to hold it. There were more whaling and sailing memorabilia than you could take in. It made a museum look empty.

He gave me some stag horn and showed me how to polish it. He told me how to make my tool and required that I make it on my own before he would really let me get to work. He was a bit old school that way, but I liked that because I’m the same way myself.

I went to his home a few times where he taught me the tricks and told me the parameters. He wanted the work to stay true to its origin. The work had to display a story about whaling or sailing. Fillagree was okay to create beauty but the story was key.

I visited him at every show he did for several years. One year he was selling harpoons. Full size replicas, the heads forged from a two-hundred year old mold the way they had been done when the mold was new. I purchased one, as much to remember Norwood as anything else. I would have dearly loved to have purchased a piece of his work but the expense of even the smallest piece was way beyond what a young man could afford at the time. The harpoon hangs from my ceiling today and is always displayed prominently wherever I live.

I did two pieces of my own scrimshaw. The picture is of my first work on a rather soft, hard to work with piece of stag horn. Though you may have to really look to see it due to the poor and crude work, there is a small catch boat on the left with the whale’s tail diving near the center and the clipper ship off in the distance on the right.

My second work was better. As much as I cherished the work and my time with Mr. Marlow, during the separation from my second wife I gave it to her. I cherished her even more and I wanted her to have it.

Me, a nerd, sitting with an old salty scrimsham. What an experience.

My Scrimshaw

My Scrimshaw

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