June 20, 2018
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Scrimshaw artist keeps tradition alive in Palermo

By Lynn Ascrizzi, Special to the BDN

For scrimshaw artist Connie Bellet, capturing the natural beauty of Earth’s wild creatures is at the core of her highly detailed artwork.

“Wildlife is my thing,” she said recently, while seated at a small worktable in her colorful studio located at the Palermo Community Center in Palermo.

To demonstrate her art, she showed a decorative, black belt buckle on which she had inscribed the head of a gray fox. Her drawing was so finely rendered that the fox’s yellow eyes glowed and every hair on its thick fur bristled.

As a scrimshaw artist, or scrimshander, she incises or “scratches” designs on hard, nonporous material, such as polished antler, fossilized bone and antique and synthetic ivory. Beneath her expert hand, realistic, colored images of wildlife leap to life — prowling lions, wolves and foxes, bellowing elk, keen-eyed eagles — and more.

Mostly, her work enhances the polished handles of fine, custom-made knives, but she also creates scrimshaw art for gun handles and other well-crafted objects.

“I do a lot of Colt factory ivory pistol grips. A lot of people are into Colt firearms, and there are a lot of Colt collectors,” she said.

Bellet is one of only a handful of professional scrimshanders in Maine. “I think there are five of us in the state who do colored scrimshaw,” she said.

Her method is low-tech but effective. While peering through a large magnifying lens mounted on her worktable, she carefully etches her designs with the sharp tip of a No. 11 X-Acto utility knife. The lines are then inked and colored. The process can take from five to hundreds of hours, depending on the project, she said.

“Some scrimshanders use mechanized tools, but I am not comfortable with them and don’t use them,” she said.

In her scrimshaw art, two basic techniques are involved — line engraving and stippling, a pointillist style made with tiny dots created by a sharp needle.

“It’s a lot slower work than scratching,” she said, of stippling. “The needle produces a velvety texture.”

The illuminated magnifier on her worktable helps her cram an amazing amount of exacting details into a small space, down to a single hair on an animal’s coat. Her subject matter varies from a lone animal to whole scenes — such as buffaloes fighting in the snow or hyenas hassling a lion.

“I like to put in a lot of action,” she said.

Color is applied in painstaking stages. The technique takes time and patience.

“Each color is an entire process and modifies the color or colors beneath it. Some pieces have 24 layers of color and may take hundreds of hours,” she said.

Cutting-edge collectors

Bellet, 61, jokingly calls her art “scratching for a living.” Despite her down-to-earth modesty, she has been earning a successful livelihood with her art for more than 30 years.

“The bulk of my work is for collectors and knife makers. I work directly with collectors, not galleries. There is no commission to pay, and I don’t have to buy materials, which are hugely expensive. Collectors send their knives to me,” she said.

The knives she works on are pieces of art in themselves, such as those crafted by renowned knife maker Dalton Holder of Peoria, Ariz., founder of D’Holder Custom Knives and past president of The Knife Guild.

“He’s one of the top dudes,” she said of Holder. And she does scrimshaw work for fine artisans such as knife maker Dennis Friedly, owner and operator of Friedly Knives in Cody, Wyo.

“He was one of my first knife-making partners. He has sent me hundreds of knives. His hunting knives are some of the very best,” she said.

Fine, handcrafted knives, without scrimshaw, can range from $500 to $10,000, said Bellet, who has worked on knives in the $5,000 range. “I work by the hour; I want my work to be affordable; I charge $25 per hour,” she said.

Her work has been featured in custom-knife magazines such as Knives Illustrated and Blade Edge. She takes her scrimshaw wares to big knife shows like Safari Club International in Las Vegas. This April, she will head to the 2010 Solvang Custom Knife Show in Solvang, Calif.

She won first place for color scrimshaw in the 2006 First Annual Mystic Seaport International Scrimshaw Competition. She has earned numerous accolades for her work from collectors around the world. Her work also is represented in the second edition of “The Art of Scrimshaw” (1983) by Bob Engnath.

Reviving an old tradition

Bellet’s scrimshaw work helps to preserve an indigenous American folk art that has its roots in prehistory. One of the oldest known pieces of scrimshaw was carved on the shoulder blade of a mammoth, she said.

In her studio that day, she showed a piece of fossilized walrus tusk.

“It died 10,000 years ago,” she said of the walrus, whose tusk had been shaped into a scraper by an ancient Inuit hunter, one of the indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic.

“It got hard by a process of mineralization after laying in the tundra mud, freezing and thawing. It has teeth carved on the edges,” she said, running her thumb along the now-dull edge of the dark-amber-colored scraper. “It was used to scrape the fat and flesh off walrus skin.

Most people associate scrimshaw with the nautical folk art created by 19th century New England sailors who used sail needles and lamp black to scratch designs on whalebone, whale teeth or baleen. Their black-and-white handiwork helped them while away the hours during long, whale-hunting voyages.

Ron Newton, author of “Learning How to Scrimshaw” (AuthorHouse, 2006), called traditional scrimshaw “a dying art form.”

But today, modern scrimshaw has progressed to a fine art, said Bellet. Although practitioners are few and far between, the art form appears to be attracting a new level of artist, according to scrimshander Eva Halat, author of “Contemporary Scrimshaw” (Schiffer, 2008).

“[M]odern scrimshaw technique has reached a very high level, and the scrimshaw itself is often of exceptional artistic quality,” Halat said.

Some of the diverse materials Bellet has worked on include: elk antler, hippo and warthog tusk (“very tough”), water buffalo and American bison horn (“black”), cow horn (“white or black”), ox leg bone, Sambar stag antler, fossilized walrus, mammoth and mastodon tusks, elk and orca teeth, mother-of-pearl and faux ivory.

“Most of the knife handles I do are made of the Sambar stag antlers or fossilized ivory used by the knife makers,” Bellet said.

She has also worked on registered elephant and walrus ivory. Both animals are protected by the Endangered Species Protection Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“Use legal ivory only and make sure it is registered,” she said.

Living culture

Bellet and her husband, Phil White Hawk, a Native American of Cherokee descent, are artists in residence at the Palermo Community Center. They live next door to the center.

Bellet also is president of the Living Communities Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization whose purpose is to “build sustainable Maine communities using green technology, ancient wisdom and common sense,” according to their Web site: yourlandmainely.org.

“The Living Communities Foundation is about helping Maine communities become more sustainable on a lot of levels — economically, agriculturally, educationally and fostering local interdependence,” Bellet said.

The couple takes their creative programs on sustainability and community well-being to communities throughout the state. People from several counties also use the center for meetings or events, they said.

White Hawk is a singer-songwriter. A musical engineer, he runs a digital sound studio in a lower level of the Palermo center. One of the couple’s lifelong goals is to educate people about Native American cultural traditions, said Bellet, who also is a painter.

The important role that Native American symbology plays in their lives can be seen in Bellet’s vivid, mural-like oil paintings in her studio, such as “Medicine Daughter,” displayed near her worktable.

In the studio that day was a painting she created on the rawhide head of a large hand drum crafted by Holly Soft Stone, a Passamaquoddy singer and drummer who lives in Bucksport. The drum art, which depicts a medicine man with long, snakelike hair and a rainbow winding like a river from his mouth, is called, “Singing Beauty Out of Chaos.”

“The hair represents chaos — the rainbow, beauty,” Bellet said.

Lynn Ascrizzi is a poet, gardener and freelance writer who lives in Freedom.

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