Ivory is a beautiful material. Since prehistoric times it has been highly valued by man for both its utilitarian and esthetic qualities and as an artist I find its appeal especially strong. William Gilkerson said it best in his introduction to The Second Scrimshaw Connection : "Scrimshaw is an arcane art, the scratching of designs into the bones of dead beasts. It inspires such a primordial surge in some of us that we must do it." The first impulse someone has when they pick up a piece of scrimshaw is to run their fingers over the surface to feel the scratches that make the image.
Ivory is a unique medium and presents unique challenges. Each piece has its own character and quality and will work differently from another. Any cracking or color variation in the ivory will present either an obstacle or a guide for the composition of the piece. But these days it has also become a challenge to navigate through the legal and social pitfalls associated with it.
The policy at the Alaskan Silver and Ivory Company was to use only "fossil" ivory, referring to ivory that had been dug from the ground rather than taken from a living animal, usually mammoth or walrus ivory. It is actually not fossilized but has been in the earth for hundreds of years and absorbed the minerals in the ground where it was buried - but is still very much ivory and not a fossil. Mammoth ivory is obviously older and much of it is uncovered in the Spring runoff or in mining operations in the Arctic. The walrus ivory is often a piece that was used in the nomadic Arctic cultures as a tool (an adze or net weight for example) then discarded as the village was moved to follow the seasonal hunting.
I have generally kept to this policy but do work on some antique ivories such as sperm whale teeth and billiard balls. Billiard and snooker balls were made from elephant ivory up until the mid 1930's and I use them for the antique globes. The sperm whale teeth provide a direct connection with the original scrimshanders - something which I value very much. Except for use as scrimshaw and gifts, they were generally considered waste in the whale oil industry but, fortunately, not discarded. They are now the most valuable of the ivories and tightly regulated so I feel lucky when I have the opportunity to work on one. I do not buy or sell whale teeth myself. The work on whale teeth in the gallery pages were all done for dealers who can legally sell them or for collectors who legally own them within the state of Washington.
My favorite type of ivory to work on is fossil walrus because it tends to be hard with less grain and gives a clean line that allows fine detail. I begin a piece with a rough sketch on the surface of the ivory with a soft lead all surface pencil. I then begin scratching in the image with a round pointed stylus. At this point I use waterproof India ink to rub into the scratches and develop the blacks of the composition with cross-hatching or stippling (or combination of the two) using an X-acto knife and surgical blade for the sharpest possible cut. I do also use an electric stippling machine when very intense stippling is required but all the work is very much hand done. Once the blacks are finished I begin putting in the color using the same techniques but using oil paint in place of the ink. I rely heavily on color to develop the sense of space and depth in my work giving it a "painterly" quality. However, I have recently been doing more work in the traditional style of "black and white" which I enjoy as well.
I do not prepare the ivory or make the wood mounts for displaying the work. I leave that to other artists more talented in that area. I worked closely with Ken Fredericks and continue to work with Roger Cash. The scrimshaw community suffered a great loss with Ken's death in November of 2009, and for me personally it was the loss of a good friend and artistic collaborator whose expertise I depended on and craftsmanship always made my work look its best. Fortunately, Roger fulfills that role as well - a superb craftsman and friend.
My work can be found in galleries in Sausalito, California; Lahaina, Hawaii; and Southeast Alaska as well as private collections around the world. I also participate in seasonal shows at the Maritime Gallery at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut. In 2002 I was awarded one of the six " Awards of Excellence" for my entry "The Franklin Expedition" in the 23rd annual International Marine Art Exhibition. I also won first place awards for the category I entered three of the six years that the Hawaiian International Scrimshaw Competition was in existence, from 1996 to 2001. My work has been included in several books on scrimshaw: the 1982 edition of the Scrimshaw Connection and the 1985 Second Scrimshaw Connection, by Bob Engnath, and the recent Contemporary Scrimshaw, by Eva Halat in both the German and English editions, and a new book by Jim Stevens - Scrimshaw Techniques. I sign my work: M. Stothart.
My studio is located in the Fairhaven district in Bellingham in the historic Morgan Block Building at 1000 Harris Ave in studio #5. You can contact me through the contact page on this web site or by mail: Matt Stothart, 1221 Harris Ave, PMB #22, Bellingham WA, 98225.
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