Artist Darrel Morris can’t remember a time when he wasn’t creating art. As a child, he’d draw on anything — including walls. Morris studied art formally for five years, and though he played around with a multitude of mediums, monochromatic work stole his heart. “I enjoy creating in black-and-white. For me, it’s about light and shadow — pure form without the distraction of color,” Morris says.
Although he still draws on paper, scrimshaw is one of his primary focuses. Morris discovered scrimshaw in 1987 while working in a cutlery shop, and went on to win his first competition in 1989, at the Knife Expo, held in Pasadena, Calif. Since then, he’s been pushing the boundaries of scrimshaw to new levels.
Morris sells his work at Vineyard Time in Vineyard Haven, which is owned by watchmaker and vintage watch expert Rubin Cronig. ”We’ve created a fun working gallery. Myself, Rubin, and jewelry artist Paul D’Olympia share this space. We’re a bit unusual. Often artists show in galleries, but work in studios elsewhere. It’s fun to be in a space where I’m working and selling and interacting with customers and clients.”
For those not in the know, scrimshaw is engraving or etching into bone or ivory, using lines, crosshatch, and stippling techniques. After the image is engraved, ink or paint is rubbed into the scratches to make the image visible. Scrimshaw dates back to the late 17th century, reaching its peak in the 1830s. One of the oldest art forms in North America, scrimshaw was practiced by Indigenous people and whalers, who were often out at sea for long stretches of time. In the 1900s, scrimshaw art started to decline, as fossil fuels replaced whale oil. The U.S. outlawed whaling in 1971, and commercial whaling in 1986, under the International Whaling Commission moratorium. Scrimshaw pieces created before 1989 (elephant) and before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory) are legal. After those years, it’s prohibited for import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Morris uses leftover material from the old whaling days for his scrimshaw work.
“I mostly use sperm whale teeth, mammoth tusks, and ancient walrus artifacts. The pieces I use are around 5,000 to 10,000 years old,” Morris said. “Clients provide me with materials they purchased from estate sales or auctions, and I work with credible antique dealers I’ve known for years. It’s all highly regulated, and I follow those regulations.”
Stippling is Morris’ technique of choice, creating thousands of tiny dots using a carbide knife. “For the first 25 to 30 years, I used a sewing needle held in a pin vice — a machinist tool for holding small parts — for scrimshaw work. Then a friend sent me a carbide knife with a note that basically said, ‘Scrimshaw has moved on,’” Morris chuckled.
Morris’ early artistic inspirations were fantasy and Renaissance art, but he’s also an avid history buff, and many of his pieces reflect his intrigue with the past. Recently, he’s become interested in the people and relics of the Martha’s Vineyard whaling industry. He created two portraits of Capt. William Martin — one on paper, and one on an antique whale tooth. Captain Martin was born and raised in Edgartown, and became the only African American whaling captain on the Vineyard. “As I was reading about Martin, I also became really interested in his grandmother, Nancy Michael, who was a formerly enslaved person, and considered a witch by many people in Edgartown,” Morris shared. “I spent a year researching her. I knew I had to draw her. I just couldn’t get her out of my head until I drew her.”
Other ideas come to Morris through reading, research, and clients. “The ideas come faster than I can finish them,” Morris said. ”It’s like falling into a deep pool for me. Learning more about historic people who are largely forgotten is very inspiring.”
Morris’ work includes portraits of Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Wampanoag whaling Captain Joseph Belain, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, and many more. Morris doesn’t limit himself to historical portraits, however. A piece titled “Aquinnah Storm” illuminates the fickle and magical weather in Aquinnah. He also makes scrimshaw grips for 1911 pistols made by Cabot, a high-end artisan gun company in Pennsylvania. Morris enjoys creating pieces that are just plain fun as well, like his “Star Wars” scrimshaw (in progress), as well as a variety of pirate art.
Scrimshaw work isn’t a quick process. It takes time, patience, and perseverance. “I’m really, really, really slow. I can finish a small project within a week, but others can take years,” Morris said. “I have pieces on my desk that I’ve been working on for three years.”
Morris’ time, passion, and effort seem to be paying off. He has a solid base of returning customers, and his work is front and center at Vineyard Time, capturing the attention of tourists and locals alike.
The Carnegie Heritage Center in Edgartown unveiled a collection of Morris’ scrimshaw art, which will run through Oct. 7. To learn more about Darrel Morris, check out his website at darrelmorris.com. To read more about Vineyard Time, visit vineyardtime.com.