Winter 2013

Lyrical Island Treasures

Cape Cod Home  /  Winter 2013 / , , ,

Writer: Matthew J. Gill / Photographer: Jennifer Dow 

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.

A Nantucket scrimshaw artist hand-crafts collectible Christmas ornaments.

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.

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

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.”

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

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.”

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

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.

In the fall and early winter, though, Lee Ann is busy completing orders for her own unique line of Christmas ornaments. During the 1980s, she thought of an idea to capture “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with ivory ornaments—one each for the song’s 12 ‘days.’ For the past three decades, the ornaments have been best sellers with her customers. Many have purchased full sets of 12; one client has her own complete set and has commissioned additional sets for each of her grandchildren.

On one side of a circular, silver-dollar-sized piece of ivory, Lee Ann etches, for example, an image depicting ‘a partridge in a pear tree.’ On the flip side, she writes out the corresponding verse of the song accompanied by custom etchings of the client’s family, hobbies, and home.

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

“It’s something I’ve been doing now since the 1980s,” she says, adding that she originally viewed the ornaments as a way to reel husbands in to purchase gifts for their wives. Papale hoped the spouses would return year after year to complete the set.

Sandy Taylor, a longtime customer of Lee Ann’s, has an entire set of the Christmas ornaments. “Lee Ann’s work is simply beautiful,” Sandy says. “It’s unique. It’s creative. What I love about her work is she tries to individualize each piece and that means a lot.”

A resident of the island who really enjoys Christmas and the holidays, Sandy says she first heard of Lee Ann’s ivory ornaments years ago. “It’s a big Nantucket thing,” she says. She has since bought ornaments for everyone in her family.

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

a Nantucket Scrimshaw Artist

Lee Ann has incorporated personal touches into Sandy’s ornaments, including her customer’s favorite flowers—Hydrangeas, roses, and Queen Anne’s Lace—and a drawing depicting the view of Brant Point from the family’s home. She also draws family pets and adds whimsical mermaids or little sailor boys to represent the client’s grandchildren. Sandy’s eldest grandson, Charlie, liked boats and trains growing up, so those themes were worked in as well. Today, Sandy purchases at least one ornament every year with drawings representing something memorable about the year. “It’s been special, very sentimental,” she adds, “I feel like [Lee Ann] is somewhat a part of our family.”

Over the years, Lee Ann has made subtle changes to the ornaments’ designs. The “10 Pipers Piping” are captured as sandpipers—shorebirds that are commonly found on Nantucket. The three French hens? She sketches berets on their heads, or adds fun French phrases like ‘pommes frites’ (French fries). Adding even more Nantucket flavor, Lee Ann incorporates images of the island’s three lighthouses as well as The Old Mill.

Lee Ann usually works in her studio, which is surrounded by beautiful gardens designed by the artist, for four to five hours each day. She notes that it takes three to four days to complete an individual ornament from scratch. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, though, she cranks up her hours to complete jobs in time for the holiday. “You don’t want to disappoint anybody,” she says.

Lee Ann says her favorite part of the job is the one-on-one interaction she has with customers to create ornaments that are just right for each person. Her clients hail from Nantucket and the mainland, and Lee Ann is now working on projects for the children and grandchildren of some of her collectors. “My customers usually end up being my friends,” she says, “and [the fact] that people make an effort to come all the way out here to find me, means a lot.”

For more information on Lee Ann Papale’s work, call 508-228-9504, or visit

Matthew J. Gill

Matthew Gill is the former editor of Cape Cod LIFE and Cape Cod ART magazines. A graduate of U-Mass Dartmouth, Matthew has worked as a journalist since 2003 and has written on topics ranging from the sinking of Nantucket’s whale ship Essex and the history of the Barnstable-Falmouth Thanksgiving football rivalry, to the Cotuit Rowing Club, Provincetown’s Art’s Dune Tours, and more! A relative newcomer when it comes to the Cape, Matt and his wife Melissa just celebrated a Cape Cod-themed wedding.