Lyrical Island Treasures

A Nantucket scrimshaw artist hand-crafts collectible Christmas ornaments.

For those unfamiliar with the craft, the art of etching or carving designs into whale’s teeth (ivory) or bone is known as scrimshaw, and those who practice this art are called scrimshaw artists or scrimshanders. According to tradition, the term ‘scrimshaw’ originated as an English or Dutch slang word used on whaling ships during the 19th century—often by ship’s captains—to describe what the crew would do in their downtime: waste time. Sitting around the ship for weeks or longer between whale sightings, sailors would kill time by carving images of ships, sea creatures, and other imagery onto whale’s teeth and bone—the byproducts brought on board in the quest for oil.

Lyrical Island Treasures

Nantucket resident Lee Ann Papale has made a successful living from this ‘time wasting’ profession for nearly 40 years, and she says she would like to introduce a new term into the profession’s lexicon. “I’d like to be called scrimshantress, if you don’t mind,” she says.

Lee Ann’s mother, Phyllis Burchell, and aunt, Nancy Chase, are scrimshaw artists as well. Another aunt, Susan Ottison, is a basketmaker and sister, Lynne Heyer, is a fisherwoman and stone carver. All are Nantucketers. “We’ve always worked on the sea,” Lee Ann says of her family, whose lineage can be traced back to the island’s original settlers. “I learned this in a family business. I grew up with it.”

Lyrical Island Treasures

In a small studio outside her home, which is tucked away on a quiet road in the center of the island, Lee Ann works on highly polished vintage and fossil ivory, employing a sewing needle—and a magnifying glass—to scratch designs onto the surface. Then, she adds ink. “It is so easy,” she sometimes jokes with students, “that sailors did it on moving ships in rolling waves.”

Lyrical Island Treasures

The majority of her work involves adding artwork to finished handles and other pieces that will be built into fellow artisans’ woven baskets. Nantucket is known around the world for its basketmaking, and Lee Ann works with “the top echelon of basketmakers on the island,” a group including Alan S.W. Reed, Bill and Judy Sayle, and Susan Ottison, Papale’s aunt.

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Matthew Gill

Matthew is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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