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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Scrimshander Carves Out Niche for Himself

Octagenarian Spends 40 Years Creating Scrimshaw Art

By TIM CABLE | CABLE COUNTRY | October 15, 2010

*** Published Sunday, Oct. 3 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

So, just what is a scrimshander?

It sounds like something you'd find at your local home improvement store. Turns out, a scrimshander is not a what. It's a who. A person who creates scrimshaw art.

"Scrimshaw goes back to the 1700s in this country," according to crimshander Don Luttrell of Johnson City. "The origin goes back to when men were whaling. What they did was when they got a whale in, the oldest man had his choice and they'd divide out the whale ivory. Then, they'd have something to work on to keep their minds busy."

The 81-year-old Luttrell has kept his mind and his hands busy scrimshanding for more than 40 years now.

"I've never had any art training or anything," Luttrell said. "I taught myself. It's a gift I've come by I guess."

Watching Luttrell etch and engrave a scene of a sailor looking off the bow of a boat, there was no doubt in my mind that Luttrell has a gift.

"I just use two little hand tools to carve a scene on a piece of ivory like this," Luttrell said. "There are no machines used whatsoever. It's all done by hand."

The attention to detail he scrapes up is amazing.

"Here, use this," Luttrell said to me, handing me a magnifying glass. "See if you can find a man with a cane that I put standing on the balcony of this cathedral."

History is his favorite scrimshaw subject. On the wall of his basement workshop, there's a full scrimshaw scene of the Battle of Little Bighorn. On a bull horn, he's skillfully sculpted a tribute to the Overmountain Men March. On a pair of ostrich eggs, he's affixed images of a pair of Native American warriors.

"Some of these pieces take quite awhile so you gotta have patience," Luttrell said. "It's something that you really got to want to do. Sometimes I think I could stay down here and work on it 24 hours a day. I like it that much."

Luttrell handed me a coin sized piece of ivory with a depiction of a bearded old man on it. The incredible detail of the wrinkles in the old man's face had to be seen to be believed.

"You don't find too many 81 year olds doing this kind of thing," I asked him. "I don't know of any," he answered with a chuckle. "But, it's just so enjoyable. I love to see the people's reaction when they look at my work. It makes me feel good inside."

As Luttrell continues to carve out quite a niche for himself, something tells me he's not about to scrap the scrimshaw anytime soon.

"I'm happy to be the age I am and still doing this art," Luttrell said. "I'm sure I'll work on it as long as I'm living."

A! ExtraTopics: Art, Crafts