Whale tale

It’s been hustle and bustle in the Learning Room lately as primary school classes made massive “scrimshaw” whale skeletons as part of the Arts Across Learning festival.

If you follow this blog you’ll know that since November’s Explore Your Archive Campaign we’ve been working a lot with our Davie Cardno Story Box, the notebooks, journals and scrapbook of a 19th century whaler from Peterhead. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to really dig into a collection and explore what it has to offer for creative projects.

This time we had artist Tracey Smith with us to come up with some ideas for an art workshop for the festival. Tracey is a printmaker and has worked with whaling collections before, and she suggested scrimshaw might be an interesting area to look at. Scrimshaw is the name for the carvings and engravings that whalers made on bone by-products from the whaling trade. Obviously we couldn’t give bone and sharp carving implements to children, but the look of scrimshaw can be imitated using an easy printing technique called mono-printing. We decided to be ambitious and create an entire whale skeleton of “scrimshaw” bones in each workshop!

Paper "scrimshaw" whale skeleton

First of all each class was introduced to the source material – Davie’s archives. Davie’s own personal story, with his stowaway on a whaling ship at the age of 11 and his subsequent adventures in the Arctic are fascinating. As well as his memoirs, the collection contains some of Davie’s own photographs and his notes on traditional Inuit life. Over time the photographs have become very faded and indistinct, but you can still see the faces of his fellow crewmen and his Inuit acquaintances, and you can get a feel for the daily life the photographs record. It’s amazing to see Davie’s view of the inside of an Inuit tent from over a hundred years ago!

Viewing the Cardno archivesCrewmen on board shipInuit groupinside Inuit tent

After a look at the archives we moved swiftly on to introducing and mastering the mono-printing technique. Tracey demonstrated how to ink up a laminated A3 sheet using water-based ink and a roller, and how to draw on paper into the ink to create a print. The children tried out the technique by tracing over images from Inuit and whaling life, some of them Davie’s own sketches (facsimile copies, of course!).

Demonstrating mono-printingMono-printingTracing scrimshaw to try out mono-printingTrying out mono-printing using Cardno sketchWhaling sceneMono-prints of Inuit life and whaling

Then it was on to the whale. Using templates the children cut out and printed onto paper whale bones, making up their own Arctic inspired designs. It was a mad rush to get all the bones done in time, but each class did it and created their own scrimshaw skeleton.

Designing scrimshaw boneDesigning scrimshaw bonesA final scrimshaw skeleton

It was exciting for us to experiment with how the archive could inspire a visual arts workshop. Plus we can’t wait for an excuse to get mono-printing again! it was so much fun to get a bit messy with art in the Learning Room.

You can see more pictures of the workshop over on the Arts Across Learning Creativitea Rooms blog.

Posted by: Sarah

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