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Scrimshaw by Gary Tonkin.
Photo: Chris Johnson

April 15, 2002
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

Genevieve Johnson

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey. We spent last month working out of Albany, Western Australia - home to Australia's last whaling station at Cheynes Beach. Prior to its closure in 1978, the Albany whalers killed about 500 sperm whales a year. Since our arrival, we have met several interesting local people, among them, Gary Tonkin - an artist and scrimshander of exceptional ability, and a major force in his community. Gary is one of the people responsible for persuading the local government and Albany community into preserving the retired whaling station, and converting it into a whale museum.

One of the more visible remnants of 19th century whaling was the work done by whalers, when, between whale kills, they had lots of time on their hands. The way they filled that time was often by decorating sperm whale teeth and bone with whaling scenes scratched into the tooth and later filled with inks to make the design more visible or to give it color, or both—the art called 'scrimshaw'. For several years, Gary has been working on telling the true story of a whaling ship that was stove and sunk by a sperm whale on the enormous jawbone of an animal that was taken off Albany. The other day he discussed his work with us and why he believes the art of scrimshaw is still relevant in modern society;

Gary Tonkin:

Scrimshaw is a craft of the early whalers who engraved whalebone and ivory from mainly sperm whales teeth. They also made artefacts and carved things, sometimes sending useful items to their loved ones, a gift to a girlfriend or wife. It was a craft that evolved out of a lot of idle time at sea. Sometimes, they spent up to four or five years at sea on a whale voyage usually coming from the United States. This was where scrimshaw began as a major craft on whaling ships; it was also done by the British and the French. Some of the work was more romantic such as fashion plates, the portraits of the ships and rigging and the whaling activities.

I fell in love with the coast of Albany and the southwest coast of Western Australia, the unique headlands, the prominence of whales, and whaling operations. As a child I loved maritime history, I became fascinated. I went out to the whaling station in Albany to have a look at their antique collection and there was a piece there on Portland, Victoria (my home town). Art was my best subject at school and I was the top student in my year. This combined with my diving, interest in whaling history, my love of maritime history and the way I was brought up, everything came together and it was almost like it was planned.

Gary Tonkin with a 13 foot jawbone depicting the story the whaleship Kathleen. He has been working for 23 years on this piece.
Photo: Chris Johnson

I went out one day in Albany and we were taking some white pointers that were eating the dead whales, I was thinking, "what am I doing this for? I'd be better off applying my artwork into scrimshaw and recording maritime history." It was then that I just fell in love with it and it was a natural thing.

I loved fine engravers like Cook and Turner and all those other early engravers, their work just had a richness about it that influenced me greatly. For me it's a never ending learning curve, the further you go the more you learn. After twenty-five years I feel that I am just breaking into new ground with the character of that early engraving and recording all of the material that I have researched overseas and around Australia.

It's a dying art - I believe traditional scrimshaw is a dying art. To get traditional scrimshaw at the level of early engravers, with the accuracy, the interpretation and the research, has taken me twenty-five years to do. There is a limited amount of schrimshanders in the world, whereas I have just focused on recording accurate whaling history he best that I can. I also love recording some of the behavior patterns of different species of whale, such as how the sperm whale protects its young from killer whales, the marguerite formations and how sperm whales feed on giant squid. We had a squid that measured over thirty feet taken out of a whale at the whaling station, those sorts of things are fascinating.

The jaw is a unique jaw, it's over thirteen feet long, it takes three people to carry it and has twenty-two teeth in it. It was removed by hand and is believed to be the largest jawbone taken up onto the flensing deck during the Albany operations, which commenced in the early 1950's and ceased operation in 1978. There had to be special supervision to remove it and although it wasn't the biggest whale that came up, it was over fifty feet and weighed over fifty tonnes and had an abnormally, extraordinarily large head on it.

I am recording the story on the jawbone of a ship called the Kathleen that was sunk by a whale. It was one of three ships sunk by a whale, all were early wooden sailing ships. There was the Essex, the Kathleen and the Anne Alexander. The Kathleen has a very unique story in that it carried a band on board and on one of its voyages it came to Fremantle also known then as the New Holland grounds. This whale was also derived from the New Holland fishery in a modern era. There was material recorded on the ship and a ballad written of seventy-two stanzas by Sullivan from New York who was also on board, there were also schrimshanders on board. In these seventy-two stanzas, the ballad tells the story of whaling. So I am recording the sinking of the ship and what transpired afterward on the jawbone itself and I have focused specific areas of the seventy-two stanzas to fit the twenty-two teeth. This will tell the story as per a Melvillian type thing, in the craft form of a whaler, rather than writing a book. Being in the craft form of a whaler and being on such a unique artefact, it should stand in its own right.

Maritime History is often depicted on a sperm whale tooth in scrimshaw . On this piece, Gary tells the story of the whaleship Catalepa.
Photo: Chris Johnson - courtesy of a private collection

Genevieve Johnson:

Whether you find yourself intrigued by the history depicted, or critical of the use of teeth from a dead whale as an artistic medium, there is no denying how attractive and intriguing many people find scrimshaw to be. Part of that, of course, is that Sperm whale teeth are made of the same material found in elephant's tusks—ivory.

But be warned: buying and travelling with sperm whale teeth without a special permit is illegal under CITES - The Convention for the Trade in Endangered Species - big fines apply. This is Gen Johnson wishing you lots of paper and pens with which to practice your art.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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