Scrimshanders: Two Hundred Years Behind the Times

Having spent a good part of my summers in Ephraim most of my life, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I recently made my very first visit to Scrimshanders Gallery, located in the Green Gables shops just a mile north of downtown. It won't be my last. Little did I know that an historic world awaited within the doors of the gallery, and co-owner Dawn Sandusky welcomed me warmly and gave me a tour. Scrimshanders are artists who create scrimshaw, an American folk art form that dates to the whaling industry in the 1800's. Sailors aboard whaling ships, who were often at sea for months or even years at a time, developed the art form that entails etching into a piece of ivory and then rubbing ink into the etch marks. Original scrimshanders used oil or soot as their inks, and contemporary artists, like Scrimshanders owner and resident artist Gary Kiracofe, use ink. Scrimshaw by Gary Kiracofe Scrimshaw by Gary Kiracofe The subjects of Kiracofe's work are often local landmarks like lighthouses and churches, and he also reflects Door County's natural beauty in his work – I was particularly taken with a pendant engraved with Door County cherries. The shop's motto "two hundred years behind the times" reflects that fact that although early scrimshanders didn't have the most sophisticated tools, they captured moments in history that won't be forgotten and have been made iconic through their work. But what about ivory? Isn't it illegal? Surprisingly, the answer is no, with just a few exceptions. Elephant ivory and walrus tusk ivory can only be bought legally if they were imported to the US prior to 1989 and 1972, respectively. Gary and Dawn are committed to upholding the law and protecting endangered species, and that's why 95% of the ivory that Gary uses is – get this– from Wooly Mammoth tusks (yes folks, Wolly Mammoths are extinct, but their uniquely colored ivory is unrestricted) and fossilized walrus ivory, which comes in rich, warm tones of cream and beige. Trained as an industrial draftsman, Gary got interested in scrimshaw by his older brother Dan who had started a shop on Faneuil Hall in Boston. Gary loved the work and soon founded the original Scrimshanders on Mackinac Island in 1979. Amazingly, three of the four Kiracofe brothers are scrimshanders, with Gary's brother Brian operating a shop in Newport, Rhode Island. Not band for landlubbers who grew up in Ohio! Nantucket basket Nantucket basket I learned that John F. Kennedy was a serious collector of scrimshaw, and though I don't thing I'll ever be in the serious category, my interest was picqued, particularly by the beautiful scrimshaw knives offered on the "man's side" of the shop. Ranging from tiny "peanut" knives to pocket to hunting knives. I was also enthralled by Scrimshanders'collection of Nantucket "Lightship" baskets, another American craft, that traditionally are topped"with a small scrimshaw piece. These beautiful baskets are wonderful collectibles, and are quite hard to find in the Midwest. Wildlife themed knives Wildlife themed knives In addition to Gary's original work, Scrimshanders features artwork by 34 different artists, ranging from potters to silversmiths to fabric artists. I loved learning about Ephraim Faience Pottery, made in Lake Mills, WI and featuring breathtaking art deco designs. Evidently, the original founder of this group of potters had ties to Ephraim, thus the name. The pottery is truly unique, and surprisingly affordable. I'd love to add a piece to my collection. Ephraim Faience Pottery is on my Christmas list! Ephraim Faience Pottery is on my Christmas list! Scrimshanders is open Monday through Saturday, 10-5, Sunday 10-4, April to December. Gary Kirocofe offers scrimshaw demonstrations on Friday afternoons through the end of August.