Story and photos by Brian Swystun
Lumsden* artisan David Goldsmith gives a whole new twist to the
notion of being moved by a novel.
in his Lumsden studio.
"In October of 1988, I was rereading Herman Melville's novel
Moby Dick and I came across the word 'scrimshander' written
in italics," says Goldsmith, leaning back in his antique barber's
chair in a studio that overlooks the Qu'Appelle Valley.
"I looked it up in a dictionary
and found that Melville was talking about scrimshaw – the art form
– and that scrimshander was the person who produced it. . . I had
an interest in doodling and calligraphy, and thought that I might
Goldsmith's scrimshaw now journeys around the world – the presidents
of Poland and Iceland own pieces of his work. He has received numerous
honors and he is represented in Canada by 15 galleries.
The origins of scrimshaw are uncertain. Goldsmith says it may have
been the Chinese, 2,000 years ago, who first polished the surface
of ivory, etched or scratched a design into it and then filled the
etching with ink. During the 1800s whalers, while on journeys of
two or three months off the eastern coast of North America, passed
time by scratching scenes onto whale teeth. Scrimshaw can be done
on bone, antler, nutshells and even man-made materials.
Goldsmith prefers to work in ivory as it is a solid,
porous material with a fine grain. It is almost indestructible, yet
it allows for extremely detailed etchings and it holds ink very well.
However, working in new ivory 'is a taboo', says Goldsmith.
Poaching for the ivory market led to several species being threatened
with extinction, he said. International trade in elephant and walrus
ivory was made illegal in 1973 by the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Goldsmith, a committed conservationist who loves wilderness backpacking
and canoeing, is concerned about the use of ivory from endangered
species. When he began doing scrimshaw he used nothing but antique
piano keys, up to a century old, for his work.
"I knew a colleague who refinished antique pianos and organs. He
gave me five key tops made of ivory – two inches by one inch, by
one sixty-fourth of an inch. For my first piece of scrimshaw I chose
to etch a beaver on a log."
Today he has a new source of old ivory: wooly mammoth tusks.
"Whole tusks with tips go to museums," he explains, "but the pieces
I use are weathered, cracked and broken. If you were canoeing by
a piece on the shore, you would think it was a piece of weathered
Goldsmith discovered a company in the Yukon that deals in mammoth
ivory found by prospectors. Klondike Nugget and Ivory Shop has been
in business since the gold rush.
"I bought a piece that was four and one-half feet long and weighed
over 100 pounds."
Although mammoths have been extinct for more than 10,000 years,
mammoth tusk is not rare. Governments treat it as a natural resource,
the same way they treat elk, moose and deer antlers that are shed
each year. Mammoth ivory is usually found along rivers and streams
in isolated areas. It costs more than $300 per kilogram.
"It's harder to work on as it is curved and you find hard and soft
parts in the same piece," says Goldsmith. "Each piece is a challenge.
But the shapes, the colors and the grain really lends itself to
There's a lot of work involved preparing the tusk
for etching. 'Raw' mammoth tusk is usually rough and brown on the
outside, about the same color and texture as tree bark. Goldsmith
says he first cuts the large piece into smaller ones with a bandsaw
– the same saw butchers use to cut bones – then he further breaks
down these pieces with a hammer.
After choosing the piece he intends to work with the power-belt
sanding begins, starting with a coarse sandpaper and advancing to
finer grits. He then hand sands the piece three more times using
progressively finer sandpaper. When sanding is complete, the piece
of tusk is perfectly smooth. But it has no lustre.
"I then use a buffing wheel with a polishing compound made specifically
for bone," says Goldsmith. "Just like magic the lustre appears –
it's absolutely fantastic. It's quite beautiful to watch."
Goldsmith wears magnifying goggles to do the fine detail work that
scrimshaw demands. To cut lines into the ivory he uses a commercial
knife handle fitted with a custom cutting blade he manufactures
from hacksaw blades. When a piece requires a dot he uses a modified
"After I'm finished etching the piece I use a thinned acrylic paint,
which I rub into the etched surface. The whalers used lamp black.
I use acrylic because it is waterproof. Inks are dyes, and will
fade. Acrylics won't fade."
Goldsmith's artwork ranges in size from one-half
inch by one inch to as long as 17 inches by two to three inches. His
images vary but most have an outdoor theme. A small mounted and framed
piece sells for less than $50.
"I want to be sure everyone can afford to buy my work, I don't
want to be elitist," he says. "I have return customers who purchased
a small piece and who enjoyed it very much. They come back when
they can afford to buy a larger piece.
"What I really enjoy is the self satisfaction I get when people
appreciate my work."
* David now makes his home in Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia. Brian Swystun is a freelance writer and photographer based
in Pense, Saskatchewan.
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