Tusk & Groove

story by Melissa Evavold

Crammed in a small studio on the sixth floor of the Herald building, a man is busy chipping away at teeth — two to eight pound sperm whale teeth, that is.

He scratches away for hours at a time, his hands fashioning straight lines and intricate dots in extreme detail. He’s not a dentist; he’s a scrimshaw artist.

Matt Stothart’s big blues eyes are magnified behind his glasses, his smile even more magnified by his large cheekbones and ivory white teeth. Working in this squished 10-foot by 8-foot room for 17 years, Stothart etches whales, bears and civil war scenes on ivory using a controversial, centuries-old art form.

According to the Westsea Company, an Internet cite specializing in scrimshaw, scrimshaw is the art of using knives, needles and other sharp objects to carve decorative objects out of fossilized mammoth tusks, sperm whale teeth and elephant tusks.

“This is it, this is all I do,” Stothart said leaning back in his chair smiling widely.

Stothart was previously a painter, but has been doing scrimshaw for the past 20 years.

Milton Slater, the director of sales for the Ye Olde Ship Store, a scrimshaw shop in Hawaii and one of Stothart’s most regular buyers, said Stothart is the most dynamic scrimshaw artist he knows, with a technique he dubs “the subtle blend of hues.”

“No one else can do portraits like Matt,” Slater said.

Charles Hunnicutt, owner of the G.B. Heron Jewelry Store in Bellingham, said Stothart is an extremely dependable and impressive scrimshaw artist.

“He’s been working for me for 15 years,” Hunnicutt said. “His record speaks for itself.”

Stothart’s corner office overlooks Bellingham Bay and Georgia Pacific.

“I pay $80 a month rent for this room,” Stothart said.“You can’t beat it, and it has a great view.”

Stothart’s office has a very scholarly look not unlike a college professor’s. A whole wall is devoted to shelves crammed with books, magazines and random papers dripping out the sides. Beside shelves is a windowsill lined with five empty Pepsi cans. In front of the windowsill waits Stothart’s drawing table, its surface littered with a stack of knife-blades, a small scrimshaw machine and a lamp. A bumper sticker depicting a charging elephant is slapped on the side of his table. It reads: “Save elephants, don’t buy ivory!”

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