Scrimshanders are a rare breed and their work has entered the American consciousness chiefly as the domain of 19th century whalers. But this Friday, Fourteenfifteen Gallery will not be a showing the scrimshaw work of some second mate named Delmar from The Rose of Nantucket, but rather the scrimshaw of Adri De La Cruz of Albuquerque. Her take is pure New Mexico.
When De La Cruz took up the craft three years ago, it was a way to process loss in her life. Bones here litter our landscape and with the help of the deer, rabbit and sheep that left them there, De La Cruz began carving as a way to create space to process grief. Her resulting work is exquisite, delicate and rare. Weekly Alibi sat down with De La Cruz to talk about bone carving, loss and the therapeutic power of scrimshaw. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: Do you consider yourself a scrimshander?
Adri De La Cruz: Maybe not exactly.
Like jazz, scrimshaw is widely considered one of the few original, American-invented art forms, but it's almost exclusively done by white men on the East Coast and in Appalachia. Also, I'm pretty sure they all are required to have beards. How did a young woman in New Mexico discover the craft?
I honestly didn't know what it was called until very recently. I've been doing woodworking and carving forever and I've always had an affinity for bones because it's the desert, it’s just what happens. You find them everywhere. It actually wasn't until a few months ago when I was out here carving on a skull that one of my neighbors stopped in and was just like, “That's scrimshaw, you're a scrimshaw person.”
Your technique differs from maritime scrimshanders. Can you describe your approach?
There are different ways that I go about when I'm actually carving into the bone. Sometimes I have to wet it and soften it a little bit so I can carve into it with woodcarving tools or an X-ACTO blade. It really depends on how detailed I'm going. If it's not that detailed, like a certain section of it, I can use a Dremel to cut through it.
Are you using ink or fire? How are you treating the bone?
Some of them are being burned or flambéed, but I have another one that is stained. Some of them are just empty. They are sealed with a clear coat of enamel.
What do you find different about working with bone as opposed to wood?
The age does not help. When you're working with wood, if you get one that's too freshly cut, it's too green and it is still likely to move around a lot more than you want. But if it's aged, after a while it's stuck in that place, unless it gets damaged. So, it's less reliable.
You’ve titled your upcoming exhibit Good Grief and written about the process of creating this work being therapeutic. Is the process of gathering bone akin to starting to pull yourself together after a loss?
How do you source the bone? Are you wandering the desert looking?
We do a lot of camping and hiking. We'll go out and usually find things pretty often, but a lot of stuff has actually been gifted to me by other people who found them. I've actively gone looking for bones.
How does that fit into coping with loss and the process of reconstructing yourself?
In a lot of ways, it's more like actively seeking something. It's like when you know that something's wrong, then you just can't quite put your finger on it. The physical act of actively seeking a thing helps me to get into a good mental space where I could actively approach something emotional.
Do you find that the material itself is elemental to that process or is it simply the physical act of gathering and working?
I think it's also the product. It's also the fact that it is a bone. It is a once-living creature and you have to look at it in the face. As you're cleaning it and working with it you have to see it all the time. It's helpful to get over a thing by getting back on the saddle. Like if you get into a car wreck, you get another car and you keep driving on the freeway. That's probably a horrible analogy.
That's probably a pretty good analogy.
Just actively keep doing things even though they scare you.