Walking through the maritime art gallery, Trevor Smith stops to study a piece of scrimshaw under glass. He reads aloud the inscription etched into the sperm whale tooth in 1829 by a young sailor named Frederick Myrick:
“Death to the living, long life to the killers.
Success to sailors wives and greasy luck to whalers.”
“Isn’t that great? I can totally see that across a graphic black T-shirt,” says Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense. “I could even see it as a tattoo.”
On view in the first-floor Nancy and George Putnam Gallery, the piece of scrimshaw bears a portrait of the ship Susan on which it was made, the artist’s signature, and the date, January 2, 1829. It entered the museum collection in 1830. Yet to Smith it is just the kind of object that is inspiring contemporary designers. There is a lot of work being produced today that idealizes these sorts of vernacular traditions and historical styles.
“It’s funny how sometimes objects are lost in time and we can’t see them and then something shifts in the culture and, all of sudden, something in them becomes visible again,” says Smith. Old ways of making a painting, an image, or a mark can seem impossibly distant, and even antiquated, he continues, until the creative people of our time reanimate it by riffing on it and putting it to new uses for new audiences.
“This particular scrimshaw has a kind of immediacy that young artists might envy. It connects to trendsI am seeing in contemporary illustration, fashion, and interior design,” says Smith. “The whole trend of big beards, dark wooden interiors and fantasies of the frontier life.”
People are seeking authenticity and adventure in their personal lives, values embedded in a piece of scrimshaw. Looking at the work, Smith says, triggers something in the imagination and you project yourself into the life of someone who spent months, years even, at sea.
Personally, Smith says he is drawn to works of art that seemingly emerge from nothing. The scrimshaw, now on view in an art museum, had humble beginnings. A sailor patiently scratched a design into a sperm whale tooth to pass away the monotonous hours between hunting sessions.
“We don’t value this work because it is made from expensive materials, or that it demonstrates virtuoso technique. Its power is something more immediate and visceral.” says Smith. “Basically it’s the product of a worker being creative with the materials he had around him. These are the things I love most dearly; it’s not about being fancy, or super rare. It’s making the maximum effect with minimal means.”