Ms. Jane Tukarski’s presentation covered the unique maritime folk art of scrimshaw, the traditional seaman’s craft of engraving designs onto whale bones, teeth, and ivory.
Her work has won multiple awards, has been featured in scrimshaw publications, and is contained in a dedicated file at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Scrimshaw is characteristic of American Folkart, practiced for centuries by the Inuit and other native groups along the Northwest Coast, it was adopted by the Yankee Whalemen of the early 1800’s.
Whaling Voyages often lasted three to five-years, and quickly became monotonous, so the Whalemen turned to working with baleen, whale teeth, and jawbones, all of which were in abundant supply, and on many ships, whale teeth were part of the pay, and were often traded to shopkeepers in port for goods or services.
Common subjects included whaling scenes, ships, women, and scenes copied from magazines of the day. The origin of the word is an obscure Dutch phrase meaning “to spend time idly” or “to waste one’s time”!
Makers of scrimshaw were called scrimshanders. They engraved images on ivory, whalebone, whale teeth, wood and shells, and carved items of bone and exotic woods. Typical works include decorated whale teeth and practical items such as napkin rings, canes, knitting needles, pie crimpers or jagging wheels (for cutting pastry), bodkins (for embroidery), swifts (yarn winders) and tools of all sorts for shipboard use.The quality of scrimshaw ranges from crude scratchings on teeth or bone to exquisite examples of fine craftsmanship with the majority falling somewhere in between, as many of the sailors of the day were mostly uneducated.
Scrimshaw essentially was a leisure activity for whalers. Because the work of whaling was very dangerous at the best of times, and whalers were unable to work at night. This gave them a great deal more free time than other sailors. A lot of scrimshaw was never signed and a great many of the pieces are anonymous. Early scrimshaw was done with crude sailing needles, and the movement of the ship, as well as the skill of the artist, produced drawings of varying levels of detail and artistry. Originally, candle black, soot, tar or tobacco juice would have been used to bring the etched design into view.
Scrimshaw history parrallels the first 100 years of American History, as Whale Oil was a major commoddity equal to Petroleum Oil today.
Whale Oil was Odorless, Colorless, and smoke free, the principal use of whale oil was as an illuminant in lamps both for home and city streets, as candle wax, watch oil, lubricant for delicate high altitude instruments, glycerine (TNT), cosmetics (“imparts a rich glossy sheen”), perfume, rust-proofing compounds, detergent, and vitamins.
A large Whale could supply as much as three tons of oil. At it’s peak there were 730 Whaling Ships working from 30 U.S. Ports.
The Civil War, beginning in April, 1861, brought the New England whaling fleet to a virtual halt. A large number of the whaling ships were captured and sunk by the Confederacy. The Civil War made a voyage more perilous even before the whaling waters were ever reached.
Whale oil’s predominant place in society was mostly eliminated with the discovery of petroleum drilling in the late 19th century, which led to gas, petroleum-based waxes and oils replacing whale oils in most nonfood applications.
Because of the endangered species act, most ivory is now illegal, so Jane uses ivory from:
Extinct animals — wooly mammoth tusk, and fossil walrus tusk from Alaska.
She also uses materials re-purposed from Antique Legacy Ivory, such as elephant ivory — once used for piano keys, and billiard balls, before the great age of plastics. Ostrich/Emu Eggs, and Ox bones are also used.
Jane works only with natural ivory (no plastic allowed), a scrimshander keeping alive a tradition, that like the whales from which it came, is almost extinct. Jane is also training up the next generation of scrimshanders (her daughter).
Primarily a Maritime Artist, Jane also does wildlife, landscapes, floral motifs, and portraits. Jane will also do commissioned pieces on request.
Visit Jane’s website at http://www.janetukarski.com/ for more information and to see more of Jane’s museum quality artwork.
Jane will be displaying her scrimshaw at the Easton, MD – Waterfowl Festival on November 12-14, 2010 visit www.waterfowlfestival.org for more details.
Meeting Summary by Charlie Marts
Photos of Slides & Artist Work by Melanie Marts, GG