The mere mention of the word “scrimshaw” raises hackles on the necks of some. It’s an art form stigmatized by the medium it was traditionally practiced on: whale bone and tusk ivory—two parcels of a modern no man’s land. But despite the art form’s unsavory origins, anyone who has seen scrimshaw knows how masterful and nuanced these inked etchings—these incredibly detailed pieces of storytelling micro-sculpture—often were. And now the world—or the surf world at least—can rediscover scrimshaw through the impressive, guilt-free work of Peter Spacek.
Spacek’s path to scrimshaw goes something like this: grew up as a hardcore Santa Barbara surfer, moved to San Diego for college, spent months living off the land and surfing his brains out on Kauai, and eventually returned to California. Spacek graduated from Art Center and set out for the Big Apple, where he’d have the best chance of finding work in his chosen discipline: illustration.
Spacek found work at an advertising design firm in New York fairly quickly and soon became a busy illustrator with a unique, humorous style. Back east he found a healthy environment of kindred surfing spirits in Montauk, and during the editorial boom of the ’90s opened his own studio. Soon he was getting enough jobs to work part of the year and surf and travel the rest.
But there is something of an albatross that travels with the neck of cartoonists and illustrators—the notion that their work doesn’t quite qualify as “fine art.” This was never a huge concern of Spacek’s, but it was confronted nonetheless by serendipity. In 2005, he was asked to draw one of his illustrations on a surfboard for a charity event, and after reluctantly agreeing, accidentally found his fine art muse. Spacek describes the evolution of his scrimshaw below.
Rob Gilley: So how did this scrimshaw thing come about?
Peter Spacek: For days I was stressing about how I was going to create an archival piece of art for a Surfrider event. Then one morning, while sitting in bed staring across the room at the board I was given to draw on, the word “scrimshaw” just kind of popped in my head. I got up, ran into the garage in my underwear, grabbed a nail, an old board, and tested out my idea. I scratched a cartoon head into the fiberglass, poured ink over it, and…nothing. But then I poured more and wiped the excess ink away, and the image came to life and I knew it was going to work. The ink had seeped deep into the scratches and became part of the board.
RG: So you knew right then that surfboards were the perfect way to resurrect scrimshaw?
PS: As much as I’d like to say so, not really. It took me a while to absorb it. I went back to my illustration work and then a few years later a friend asked me—no, told me—that I was going to be headlining a show at his gallery. I revisited the scrimshaw thing—dove into it actually—and really started to see the potential of it. Things took off from there.
RG: And for the first time in history a cartoonist began to produce fine art [laughs]?
PS: Well, not really. One of my art heroes is a guy named Saul Steinberg. He was a famous New Yorker cartoonist who became popular in the Manhattan art scene. An amazing, prolific artist.
RG: One intriguing layer to this work is the visual alliteration, for lack of a better word. That these cross-sections and parts of old surfboards, before you even draw on them, take on the physical shape of a distinct subject.
PS: I know. It’s weird. As I started to cut up old boards, I began to see real-world shapes. A book in a rail cross-section, a smile in a fin curve, a perfect barrel in a delaminating glass job. The shapes themselves kind of told me what to etch on them.
RG: And unlike many surf artists, you actually infuse humor into most of your pieces.
PS: Well that’s always been my style, part of my “artistic persona.” Or to put it another way, I’m a sucker for a gag…so I saw no reason to stop.
See more of Peter Spacek’s scrimshaw at the California Surf Museum, where it will be on display through August.