by LEE TOLLIVER
photography by TODD WRIGHT
Rick Bowles leans over the jeweler’s loupe and pecks at a piece of ivory with small instruments, scratching and dotting the surface in moves so tiny they require magnification 18 times their actual size.
The approach is similar in concept to pixels in a photograph: thousands of dots that together form a detailed scene – in this case, a farm with flowers blooming and birds soaring overhead.
It’s not unusual for Bowles, 65, to spend several hours on a spot the size of a fingernail, several weeks on a piece the size of a small knife handle.
Bowles is a scrimshander, an artist who carves images into bone, ivory or imitations of them. The art form, which dates back some 300 years, is increasingly rare these days. Ivory is highly regulated and nearly impossible to get in America, the result of efforts to stem elephant poaching.
Bowles works out of his Virginia Beach home, surrounded by guitars, computers and a collection of his own artwork – an impressive array of knives, belt buckles, gun handles and more.
He has gotten so good that he is the only authorized scrimshander for Randall Made Knives, one of the country’s largest handmade-knife makers. For the past 35 years, selling and adding scrimshaw to Randall knives has been his main source of income.
Gary Randall, whose family has owned the Orlando, Florida-based company since 1938, says Bowles is one of the best he’s seen.
“He’s a true artist,” Randall says. “He would have been successful in any kind of art, but he chose to focus his attention on scrimshaw. We’re sure glad he did.”
Scrimshaw was born on whaling ships in the 1700s. Sailors often used pieces of whalebone to make needles for repairing sails. Sometimes they made stays for corsets, gifts for women waiting in port.
“They were bored to tears most of the time,” Bowles says.
At some point sailors started using whale bones and teeth as a canvas for their stories, tales of life at sea, battling a whale or their yearning to return to their loved ones on land. They used candle black, soot and tobacco juice to make the scratches visible and bring them to life.
Modern scrimshanders use a variety of ivory and often turn to synthetic when the real thing isn’t available, working it with more precise tools borrowed from dentistry. Many employ ink to enhance the artwork. “I prefer black ink,” Bowles says. “But I think (brighter) color sometimes is easier. It depends on the piece and what the buyer wants.”
Bowles, who graduated from Princess Anne High in 1968, started working as an artist for a local screen printing shop after school. After several years, he started working at A&P Arms gun shops in Virginia Beach and Hampton. He often sketched posters for events.
One day, a local knife maker suggested he try scrimshaw and gave him some Micarta, a synthetic composite, to work on. Bowles worked hard on the piece and thought the result was masterful. The knife maker, however, was not impressed. “He didn’t mince words. I was immediately taken aback,” he says. “But I started looking at the work that was out there and I kept practicing.”
Gary Randall took notice after a couple years and commissioned Bowles for some of the company’s top-end knives – which at the time were made of composites instead of ivory.
“They sent me 10 knives and I asked them for $50 a knife,” Bowles says. “They kept five for their museum and sold the other five.”
That was more than 1,250 knives ago.
Like most artists, Bowles began to add his own flair once he was comfortable with the form. He’d hide images of family and friends in the work. In one of his favorite examples, he placed H. Ross Perot, the 1992 independent presidential candidate, in a scene. “I was,” he says, “a supporter at the time.”
The buyer of the piece decided to make a large poster of the work and one day noticed Perot in the scene. “He called me immediately,” Bowles says with a laugh. “He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.” Randall says such wrinkles are unique to Bowles. “If you know Rick, you’ll understand why he does it. He’s truly a Renaissance man.
“He’s a musician, he cooks, hunts and fishes and draws. I think these are the kinds of things that make his works so special.”
Scrimshaw is a highly specialized art form, one in which supply and demand keeps prices high. Part of what makes it valuable is the difficulty of getting real ivory. An executive order by President Barack Obama, designed to address the problem of poaching in Africa, dramatically lowered the value of pieces in the United States, because certain kinds no longer are allowed to be sold. The restrictions have led artists to begin using synthetic ivory, an epoxy-based mixture practically indistinguishable from the real thing.
But even with new materials, few artists in the United States are following in Bowles’ footsteps. Scrimshaw most likely will be kept alive in countries such as Japan, Bowles said, where people place a much higher value on centuries-old traditions.
“I don’t know of any youngsters practicing scrimshaw,” Bowles says, sipping on his daily happy hour glass of Jack Apple before lighting up a smoke. “It takes lots of patience and time, and I’m not
really sure if we have much of that anymore.”