Imagine a frozen island of buried artifacts and fossils. St. Lawrence Island. It’s where Siberian Y’upik Eskimos uncover artifacts and fossilized walrus ivory in old dig sites and village sites. They do this during the three months of the year when the ground thaws enough to yield its treasures. Outsiders wait to buy, because by law, they don’t have rights to what’s on the island—only the Y’upik people do.
Now travel south to the "lower forty-eight." In the 1950s, Dennis Sims, a Southern California boy, developed a love for nature. He hunted and fished on a friend’s 1,700 acre property. In high school he met a teacher, a rock hound, who taught a creativity class. Students could throw pots in class, or paint, or they could choose another creative endeavor. Dennis chose silversmithing; he selected cuts of agate, set them in rings and pendants, and sold them to his teachers.
After eight or so years, Dennis left Southern California to become a master machinist in Arkansas. He returned to California to practice as a master machinist for several shops until, one day, his wife said, "Let’s go to Alaska."
That changed everything. It pulled together all of his talents, at the perfect time, in the perfect place.
So, in the mid-1970s, Dennis, his wife, their one-year-old child, and their German Shepherd-Doberman traveled north from California on the Alaska Highway in a camper he built with his own hands. He was around 22 years old. He secured a job in Anchorage picking up undeveloped photo film from customers in the afternoon and delivering the developed photos the next morning. He made and sold beaded jewelry on the side. (His California sister and her boyfriend, who had lots of beads, gave him some.) In Anchorage, he serendipitously met Alaskan Native artist Leonard Savage, who said to him, "Stop trying to sell those beads. Do this instead."
"This" was creating scrimshaw, and it became Dennis’s calling.
Scrimshaw is the art of carving or engraving on ivory or bone, then highlighting the design with pigment. The old sailing needle on whale’s teeth, darkened with candle black, soot, or tobacco juice as a way to while away the time on the high seas, gave way to today’s fine gravers on fossilized ivory and synthetic composites, darkened with inks and patinas. Did you know that a maker of scrimshaw is called a "scrimshander"? It is an old and beautiful art form.
So, Leonard Savage asked Dennis, "Can you carve?" "No," admitted Dennis. "But can you draw?" asked Leonard. "Yes," replied Dennis, "I can draw."
The conversation turned Dennis onto the fork in his path that became his calling. It took place at a jewelry store called Sims. (No relation to the young Dennis from Southern California with his camper and his wife and infant and dog.) Leonard instructed Dennis to buy a scrimshaw book at the used bookstore next door and to use it to learn about scrimshaw. Dennis bought the book and also a pound of ivory from Leonard. He scrimshawed on the side while he continued to pick up and deliver film.
Before long, Dennis was making more money selling scrimshaw earrings and other pieces than he was delivering photos. And that’s when he dedicated himself full-time to working as a scrimshaw artist.
Those are the roots of Alaska Scrimshaw Connection in Houston, Alaska, the business that Dennis and his wife, Michelle, now own. Scrimshaw is legal and acceptable as a native and native-inspired art. Dennis and Michelle sell and distribute within the U.S. only, and no animals are hurt because he works entirely with fossilized walrus ivory. Michelle runs the business and makes jewelry that incorporates the scrimshaw that Dennis creates using the same gravers he purchased from Rio Grande thirty years ago. Alaska Scrimshaw Connection also sells artifacts and beautiful ivory carvings created by none other than artist Leonard Savage. It’s a perfect collaboration of talent and friendship and produces art and jewelry richly steeped in Alaskan culture.
The Connection distributes throughout Alaska, selling scrimshaw ax heads and knives at Corrington Alaskan Ivory in Skagway, Alaska. The business also sells jewelry, art, and artifacts to tourists at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and the entire line of Princess Lodges throughout Alaska.
Dennis and Michelle are longtime friends of Rio Grande. Here are a few examples of Dennis’s spectacular artwork:
What’s your jewelry story? Where has your artistic path taken you? How did you get to where you are today? We would love to hear from you!Comment on this article
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