Scrimshaw: A lost art found


Ebony and ivory aren’t just found on a keyboard. They make a powerful combination when merged together in a unique artform called scrimshaw. A Harris County man has perfected the art.

On the surface it appears to be a pristine piece of photography, very detailed and intricate. But this kind of art is actually scratched into the surface of ivory. It’s called scrimshaw and it’s become the trademark of Harris County resident James Mitchell. He’s being doing scrimshaw since the 1950’s and he’s self taught.

When I asked James where scrimshaw originated, he said on whaling ships centuries ago.

“At night when they couldn’t work on the deck, they took the teeth of the whales and polished them,” says James Mitchell.

“And they would scratch designs into the whales’ teeth and then they would reach inside the chimney of the whale oil lamp and get the black soot and rub it down into the scratches,” says James Mitchell.

The resulting artwork was mesmerizing. I asked James to demonstrate how he does scrimshaw.

“The first thing that I try to do with that piece of ivory is to polish it very smooth and very slick so I can draw on it with a pencil, but not so much that I stain the ivory,” says James Mitchell.

“Once I get my drawing done.. I take a sharp-pointed scribe.. And then scratch the designs into the ivory,” says James Mitchell.

“Several times during the process of doing the scratching and all of that, I will stop and  put color on it and wipe it down good to leave nothing but the color that’s in the scratches,”says James Mitchell.

James’ finished artwork is used in belt buckles, knife handles and other specialty items like this bottle opener he designed for one of his daughters with a picture of her dog on the handle.

“Phil, I’ve reached an age in my life when I think about how much longer I’ve got, and it makes me feel good to put something on there that is going to be my daughter’s for her life..” says James Mitchell.

“So after I’m gone, she’ll have a piece of me, you know,” says James Mitchell.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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