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Etching Ivory

Story and photos by Brian Swystun

Lumsden* artisan David Goldsmith gives a whole new twist to the notion of being moved by a novel.
David Goldsmith in his Lumsden studio.
David Goldsmith 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 try it."

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 driftwood."

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 prairie landscapes."

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 dental pick.

"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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