When scrimshaw artist Terry Christian of Puyallup, Wash., was first starting out, he decided to enter a competition in Hawaii as a means of perhaps selling his pieces. He ultimately walked away from the competition with first place awards in the two divisions that he had entered.
"I didn't expect to really win, so I thought maybe I was on to something," said Christian, a former graphic designer. "That's when I really started doing it."
Today, Christian is considered one of the world's leading scrimshaw artists. He works exclusively with fossil ivory as opposed to that taken from animals like elephants killed specifically for their ivory.
News Photo by Diane Speer
Scrimshaw artist Terry Christian demonstrates the tool he uses to etch a design onto ivory.
"Fossil ivory means that it is ancient. It's easy to identify because of its stained surface from being in the earth," said Christian, who along with expert knife maker Webb Hammond, did a demonstration Wednesday at the Besser Museum courtesy of the Safari Club International Northeast Michigan Chapter. "There's no mistaking the new for the old. It's really much more attractive. What makes it beautiful is that because it is buried in the ground, it takes on that coloration."
All of what Christian uses is either fossilized ivory from walrus or woolly mammoth. Locations that are among his primary sources for the ivory are Alaska, Russia and Canada.
According to Christian, scrimshaw is the only authentic American art form. It was started in the 1800s, he said, by sailors from New England ports in Rhode Island and Connecticut who filled their down time while at sea scratching works of art onto whale teeth. Christian said examples of the earliest scrimshaw pieces can still be found today.
By the 1900s, the art scrimshaw had just about died out with the decline in the whaling industry and the negative connotations of using ivory from slaughtered animals, Christian also said.
Once he acquires a piece of ivory, Christian polishes it and preps it before etching his artwork onto the surface.
While the sailors often used broken sail needles to scratch their designs on, he uses a simple metal tool with a finely sharpened tip.
Christian then takes a photograph or other image that he finds inspirational and does a tracing and transfer of the picture onto the ivory.
The next step involves etching the image along the most distinct lines. Once that is completed, he removes the transfer and fills in the rest of the design with his tool.
Many of his subjects feature nautical themes. His largest a woolly mammoth design was done on a seven-foot mammoth tusk.
"Part of the knack is picking out the right subject for the right piece," Christian said.
For more information about his art, go to Scrimgallery.com.