Scrimshaw – An American Folk Art
Scrimshaw, the art of engraving on ivory or bone. During the 19th Century, whaling voyages were measured in years, not months. A month or more might pass between kills, and in the meantime, there was only so much shipboard work to keep 30 men occupied. Boredom was more than a minor annoyance; it became a fact of life and a major shipboard problem. Under such conditions, it is only logical to expect a variety of pastimes to have emerged. Scrimshaw became the most popular channel for pent-up energy. Whale men would pass the tedious hours they had spent at sea in search of the whale by engraving and carving whale teeth and whale bone.
This art came to be known as Scrimshaw. Pie crimpers, corset busks, swifts, canes, sewing tools, and engraved whales teeth, were popular 19th-century scrimshaw objects produced by the whale man for themselves and their loved ones.
The Artists Behind Scrimshanders
Scrimshaw, a 19th-century maritime art, is still handcrafted today in historic Newport, Rhode Island by resident artist Brian Kiracofe.
Brian established the Newport Scrimshander in 1987; he has been engraving nautical scenes on ancient walrus, prehistoric mammoth, and recycled piano key ivory for over 20 years, specializing in Newport scenes and custom designs.
Brian Kiracofe was interviewed for a feature writing assignment by local Salve University student Courtney Gagnon.
“In his store Kiracofe takes the time to answer questions, always making himself available to customers. When people come into his store Kiracofe helps them to understand what they are buying and exposes them to the history surrounding his work. He wants customers to recognize the uniqueness of his products…
Moving back to his work desk Kiracofe returns to the piece he was working on earlier. His scribe moves in linear motions to create the faint image of the Newport Bridge stretching across the background of the scene. What could be a more local image than that around here? Looking around it becomes apparent he depicts it in a lot of his pieces. Suddenly the image feels symbolic. Maybe the bridge that connects people with the past of a historical city can also help reconnect people with the lost art of scrimshaw. For now, Kiracofe keeps the American folk art alive with every stroke of his scribe.”