IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pennsylvania man preserving art of scrimshaw

Rretiree Ken Kenowski is a self-taught master of scrimshaw, the rapidly dying American art form first popularized by sailors on whaling expeditions during the early 1800s.
/ Source: The Associated Press

MOSCOW, Pa. — If it's easy, Ken Kenowski doesn't want any part of it.

Sounds about right coming from an artist whose canvases are old whale teeth and elephant tusks.

The Madison Township retiree is a self-taught master of scrimshaw, the rapidly dying American art form first popularized by sailors on whaling expeditions during the early 1800s. Scrimshanders, as they're called, take a piece of bone, tooth or ivory and on them create images composed of countless minuscule etchings.

Modern scrimshaw — the real deal, not the cheaply made plastic trinkets found at state fairs and boardwalks — is hard to come by today, largely due to the fact that its illegal to import elephant ivory and whale bones into the United States.

A recent recipient of a Lackawanna County arts grant, Kenowski, 65, tracks down all of his materials, which also includes hippopotamus, warthog, walrus and deer remains, through estate sales and auctions. He has more piano keys in his possession than he knows what to do with.

The walls of his home, which he shares with his wife, Margie, and their four dogs, are filled with nautical and American Indian memorabilia, much of it antique. Scattered among those items are many of his pieces, which very much reflect his interests. They include ivory disks depicting 19th-century ships he's researched, whale ribs featuring American Indian whale hunts, an ivory billiard ball turned into a globe and several pieces modeled on paintings by Winslow Homer, the renowned 19th-century artist known for his marine canvases.

Pirate's fate
"That's Blackbeard. That's before. That's after," he said, holding up a whale tooth with images of the infamous pirate etched on two sides, with and without possession of his head.

"I try to tell a story with everything I do," said Kenowski, who has sent examples of his work to Bill and Hillary Clinton, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and the late actor Jack Palance. "I try to do something that's a little different. If it's hard, I like it. If it's not, I won't."

Pricing for his scrimshaw varies widely, from $175 lockets with animal images to $1,500 ivory disks. He takes his work to several shows throughout the year, but doesn't earn enough to make a living at it. To get by, he sells Revolutionary and Civil War artifacts.

"The problem with scrimshaw is that people don't realize it's art," he said. "It's as good as any oil painting or better."

In fact, it requires what Kenowski calls "ESP" — "the eye of an artist, the skill of a surgeon and the patience of a saint."

Trial and error
Kenowski came to scrimshaw relatively recently, at age 48, right around the time he realized he had a facility for drawing. A former hunter, his first piece was done using a powder horn.

"I'd see (scrimshaw) at shows. Antique dealers would have it," said Kenowski, who's been invited to attend a major scrimshander competition in Mystic, Conn., this summer. "I decided I wanted to do an art form that you didn't see too much. An antique art form that was dying.

"I liked the idea that it wasn't a canvas," he continued. "You have to be more precise and exact in what you're doing. It's not like doing an oil painting and if you make a mistake, just paint over it. With this type of work you can't paint over the mistakes."

So, how did that first project turn out?

"Let's put it this way, it came out like a beginner," he said with a chuckle.

With much trial and error, his style evolved significantly, from the flatness of traditional scrimshaw to a more three-dimensional approach.

Tedious process
The process, which, depending on the piece, can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to three months to complete, begins with sanding and buffing (elephant ivory is by far the easiest to work with in his opinion). Then he decides on a subject, the scope of which depends on the shape and size of the material he's using. Once that's settled, he draws it (without the aid of a preliminary sketch, which he calls "a waste of time") using a pencil with a soft lead tip.

Next comes the carving, an extremely tedious process — a half an inch is considered a good day's work — involving a wide variety of tools: pin vises, chain saw files, scalpels, sharpening stones made of Arkansas stone and a magnifying glass that's increasingly being pushed aside in favor of a high-tech microscope he recently purchased.

Finally, he colors in the etchings, using paints he stores in prescription-medication bottles that keep them from drying.

'Creating antiques for the future'
He's now two and a half months into his current piece, a rendering of Winslow Homer's "Eight Bells." Usually, he puts in a six-hour day in his charmingly cluttered studio, breaking up his work into 90-minute spurts, a necessity brought on by a serious case of arthritis.

Eventually, Kenowski believes, the arthritis and his declining eyesight will eventually force him to give up scrimshaw. He's already prepared himself for the loss, having taken up painting as a side hobby in recent years.

His painting skills have come along nicely, but Kenowski has no illusions about his ultimate legacy. He's pretty confident his scrimshaw will get its just due long after his death, like so many other artists before him.

"I want to leave something when I die," he said. "I'm creating antiques for the future."