Crafts & Folk Art

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An exceptional large ash burl covered bowl, North America, circa 1780.Burl wood is highly prized in the antiques world, used for veneer on a variety of case pieces and smaller decorative objects as well as being shaped into more utilitarian wares like bowls and utensils, but it starts life as one of those knobby, rounded growths often seen on trees. Most burl objects from an identified wood are ash, but burl can occur on just about any type of tree and objects are also made from maple, elm, and walnut burl, among others.

Burl is actually most typically a tree’s response to an injury of some sort – either a direct injury like a cut or a blow or an indirect one caused by the introduction of a virus or a fungus, and a great many of them are actually found in root systems in enormous connected networks when trees fall over. The knots within the burl themselves are dormant, malformed buds.

Extracting wood from a burl or using one to create an object is quite difficult, making burl not only prized for its rarity but for the difficulty in working with it. It is almost like a tumor – a dense cluster of cells and while the winding, convoluted grain makes it prone to cracking if worked with too much mechanical force, the same thickness of grain makes objects wrought from it unlikely to crack or split. Burl was often worked by hand, especially by Native Americans who created many utensils from it. On the other hand, if a bowl has parallel lines or rings on the exterior, a raised foot or a particularly consistent rim around the top, these are indications that it was turned on a lathe rather than carved by hand.

It should be noted that birdseye maple, while similar to burl in appearance, is not the same thing. The dark, hard knots found in burl are not present in birdseye maple and while many theories have been put forth, scientists do not yet have an explanation for what causes the birdseye effect.

A fabulous early American silk embroidered sailor's jumperWinter passes slowly. We count the days, watch the shifting sea of snow outside the windows, and try to occupy our time, but whenever I start to be really weary, I try to remind myself that it could be worse: I could be on an 18th-century whaler. Whaling voyages lasted years and the only thing that could possibly be more unchanging than a snowy Ohio cornfield would be an endless vista of water. So it’s no surprise that sailors found a number of small, intricate projects to occupy their time.

As we highlighted a few weeks ago, sailors often worked on scrimshaw pieces, carving scenes in teeth or pieces of baleen, and fashioned small objects like pie crimpers or jagging wheels. (At one time, it was thought that sailors made these “sailor’s valentines,” but research in more recent decades indicates that they were likely made in the Caribbean, Barbados specifically, and sold to sailors as keepsakes.) While modern depictions of sailors in centuries past are often of rough, pirate-esque men, the objects they left behind frequently reveal finer, more delicate skills, but perhaps few more so than this recent offering at auction, a sailor’s shirt or jumper with intricate embroidery, work that would far more likely be attributed to a woman in any other setting. In reality however, sailors did a great deal of sewing (a great deal of all manner of domestic work, in fact), spending their hours repairing sails and ropes, as well as their own clothing. So it’s not difficult to imagine the detailed embroidery on this piece being the work of a sailor as well, a sailor who, the American flag and eagle would seem imply, served in the United States Navy. Few such pieces are known to exist aside from objects in the collection of the Winterthur Museum and the Smithsonian, although there are a few extant images, including this one which has collar and cuffs tinted blue, showing sailors in shirts of similar style.

A scrimshaw whalebone crimper [pie crimper or jagging wheel] with whale ivory double wheelsA jagging wheel, also sometimes known as a pie crimp or a pie crimper, is a fluted or crenellated wheel used to trim and/or to seal the edges of pastry crusts. They were also some of the most common items produced from ivory by whalers who practiced the arts of ivory carving and scrimshaw in their spare time on long sea voyages. (Iron and wooden jagging wheels also occasionally appear on the market, but the vast majority of them are ivory or bone.) More elaborate examples have pierced carvings throughout the handle and the wheel and it is not at all uncommon for the design to incorporate a fork either on the handle or diverging from the handle above the wheel for pricking vents in pastry.


Scrimshaw refers to decA scrimshaw whale's tooth depicting <i>A Cruizer</i> and <i>A Hard Gale</i>, attributed to Edward Burdett (1805 to 1833)orative engraving done on pieces of bone or ivory. The term is occasionally expanded to include some sculptures or figurines made from the same materials, although this is more accurately ivory or bone carving. One who practices the art of scrimshaw is known as a scrimshander. An ancient art, scrimshaw grew considerably in popularity during the mid-18th century, the boom years of the whaling industry, as it was chiefly a hobby during long voyages for sailors on whaling ships who had ready access to the bones and teeth of sperm whales as byproducts of whaling. (Scrimshaw work is also often seen on baleen, a keratin substance, that forms the plates in the mouths of a suborder of whales that includes humpback, grey, right and blue whales, as well as on the tusks of walruses.) Teeth were often engraved “as is” with everything from romantic sentiments to whaling scenes to political statements, while baleen was almost plastic-like in its versatile nature and was occasionally used for engraved busks (stay-like supports in women’s corsets). Walrus tusks were engraved with the same scenes, but were also occasionally drilled with holes to serve as highly decorated cribbage boards. The most desirable pieces have, of course, the most intricate carvings, but examples are also highly prized for unusual subject matter or identifying inscriptions (ship or ship’s officer names, dates, intended recipient, etc.).

While scrimshaw is still practiced today, laws like the Endangered Species Act and other international laws that protect whales (and elephants, whose tusks were also often carved and are still sought by poachers today for their value) have changed the availability of ivory. Depending on the age of the piece, these same laws may make certain requirements or restrictions when it comes to buying and selling ivory as well.

A circa 1960 Chinese Cultural Revolution carved boxwood figure, depicting a Mongolian girl holding two peaches.It’s a rare thing when we say, “Wow!  I’ve never seen one of those before!”  We see nicer examples, more complete examples, more unusual examples of things we’ve seen before, but every now and then, we come across some objects with a context that’s completely new to us.  That’s how I felt when I encountered several groups of artwork from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  After the push to rapidly industrialize China during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mao began to feel as though he had lost some authority specifically to Liu Shaoqi and other rivals in the Chinese Communist Party, and more generally to a visible and burgeoning middle class populated by engineers, factory managers, and other science- or technology-minded citizens.  (Ironically, it’s the rise of a new middle class in China today, along with the weaker value of the U.S. dollar, that is driving a rapidly growing market for Asian material, much of which is being repatriated.)  Mao’s vision of communism sought an idealized classless society, and he used that vision to spark the Cultural Revolution, a movement whose sophisticated and gentle name belies the violence and turmoil it inspired throughout China.  (Estimates of those killed range from 500,000 to 20 million and will likely never be accurately known.)  The Cultural Revolution resulted in huge, sweeping changes in China to attitudes, policies, and even artwork.

As part of the Cultural Revolution, anything bourgeois was violently rejected and that included art.  All artwork was to promote the worker, the individual without promoting individualism, and to depict well-fed, cheerful Chinese citizens (like the beaming young woman pictured above) working hard but happily at daily jobs, preferably those that were seen as the cornerstones of communism – the worker and the farmer.  Carvings and sculptures of farmers plowing the fields, fishermen pulling their nets, workers surveying their accomplishments, seem to project a peacefulness and contentment, rather reminiscent actually of the American Regionalist artistic movement headed by Grant Wood a few decades earlier, that makes one feel life is simple and pleasurable for those who work hard and contribute to the world in which they live.  At the same time, when placed in the murky context of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, these pieces seem to carry a darker, more sinister weight, contributing to the eternal discussion of how art changes with or without the historic, social, and artistic framework.

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