BAR HARBOR — After more than 40 years in business here, the proprietor of the Scrimshaw Workshop store on Main Street closed up shop for good in February. Chris Cambridge, a veteran scrimshander, plans to sell his works online and at craft fairs instead.
Cambridge, 68, grew up in Harvard, Mass. He started scrimshawing during his final year at Colby College in 1972, when his father was dabbling in the art.
There was a mandatory period of independent study built into Colby’s curriculum at the time, so he took it up for credit.
“In my senior year, my father had just started fooling around with scrimshaw,” he said. “I found an art professor to sponsor me.”
“He was an old hippie, and he was really mellow,” he added. “He said ‘do a couple pieces of scrimshaw, and that will be good.’”
The art of scrimshaw began on whaling ships in the late 1700s, but it became more common in the early 1800s. Sailors would make common tools from whale bone and teeth, which were abundant, and carve them with intricate designs. The craft can include works made on pieces of ivory, bone or even mother of pearl.
Scrimshawed works are etched with a special carving tool and then filled with oil paint or ink. Cambridge said his works take different amounts of time, but smaller pieces, which can portray landscapes or figures, take about two hours and fetch about $200 in his shop.
A recently completed work called “Lobstering amongst the Porcupine Islands” depicts a ship in Frenchman Bay. The 4-by-2-inch etching took him six hours to complete and was a custom order for a client.
Cambridge opened a shop on Route 3 in 1974. He operated there until 1995, when he moved downtown to 150 Main St., where he stayed for 22 years before moving out in February.
Cambridge, who lives in Ellsworth, said some customers have wrong ideas about the art, often associating it with illegal elephant tusk ivory. Many states have bans on selling elephant ivory. Cambridge said he decided 45 years ago that he would never source any ivory that harmed living animals.
“I made up my mind 45 years ago that I would never sell a piece of elephant ivory,” he said. “I’m proud of that.”
Cognizant of the maritime history of scrimshaw aboard whaling vessels, other customers associate the craft with illegal whale hunting.
“People would come in very often and say, ‘I thought scrimshaw was illegal,” and I felt like saying ‘yeah, it’s illegal, and the drugs are back there on the table,’” he said wryly.
Most ivory he uses in his work is fossil woolly mammoth or fossil walrus ivory that is approximately 500 to 2,000 years old. It’s mainly sourced from Alaskan Inuit village sites.
He has had difficulty sourcing ivory, which he said was a factor in selling the store. There are no places locally to source ivory, and he supplies ivory to some of his artists, all while finding time to do his own work.
“I was working 80-90 hours a week,” “There’s no 1-800 number for woolly mammoth ivory.”
Cambridge touts a 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth tusk in his shop. He said customers often take pictures of him holding it.
“They will buy something made from woolly mammoth ivory, and I’ll say ‘you’ve got to hold this’,” he said.
He filled his shop with other artists’ scrimshaw work, as well as pottery. Cambridge’s son, Tucker, 26, also is a scrimshaw artist, but he is currently pursuing a doctorate in biology.
Cambridge said that setting up a website and preparing for future craft shows have left him with little time to pursue his hobbies. He remains hopeful that he can carve out some time to enjoy his surroundings in Hancock County.
“I can’t afford to retire, and right now I’m crazy busy,” Cambridge said. “There’s a lot of pressure, so I’m more stressed out than ever.”
“I’d love to play a little more golf,” he added. “I love the ocean, and all I do is wave to it when I drive by.”
The shop space at 150 Main St. will be occupied by Susan Nordman and Scott Mayer. Their shop, called “Bliss,” will sell locally made jewelry and accessories, as well as small batch, organic soaps and lotions made by Nordman.
Cambridge hopes his new website, thescrimshawworkshop.com, will be up and running in a few weeks.