Sacred beings, a vanishing art form, and a fine artist

For Jade Gotauco, the idea that she will likely be the last scrimshander in her family brings satisfaction, not sadness

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 9/25/21

“It ends with me,” said Jade Gotauco of her family’s long legacy in scrimshaw, an art form that involves engravings and carvings done on bone or ivory, most often the teeth of sperm …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Not a subscriber?


Start a Subscription

Sign up to start a subscription today! Click here to see your options.

Purchase a day pass

Purchase 24 hours of website access for $2. Click here to continue

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.


Sacred beings, a vanishing art form, and a fine artist

For Jade Gotauco, the idea that she will likely be the last scrimshander in her family brings satisfaction, not sadness

Posted

“It ends with me,” said Jade Gotauco of her family’s long legacy in scrimshaw, an art form that involves engravings and carvings done on bone or ivory, most often the teeth of sperm whales or the tusks of walruses. Scrimshaw reached the height of its popularity among American and Anglo-American whaling cultures in the 19th century.

It might seem like a strange comment from someone who spends many happy hours engrossed in executing a design with rare skill and precision; an artist at the top of her form, of an art form that is, by necessity, dying.
Regulations around sourcing of raw materials for scrimshaw are onerous, and Jade won’t think of buying any, anyway. What she has was given to her by her father, himself an accomplished scrimshander.

Chester Gotauco, Jade’s father, was given a scrimshaw kit by his mother, from Newfoundland, around 1970. He enjoyed it — and excelled, inheriting a cherished family collection of materials passed down from several generations on his mother's side. For years, Chester operated scrimshaw shops in Wickford and Newport.With his materials being documented well before the Endangered Species Act, he was able to create a thriving livelihood for many years, and train his youngest daughter what it meant to be a scrimshander. Jade made her first scrimshaw sale in the shop in 1992; she was 8 years old. She admits to having mixed feelings about the art form at the time — she still has a small, unfinished piece she made of a dolphin with the phrase “I think this stinks” etched alongside.

Returning to her roots

After graduating from North Kingstown High School, Jade went right to work. Art was not really in her plans, but she did move to Warren and get a job at Don’s Art Shop, where Kathy Kitteell saw her sketching and took Jade under her wing. “I studied under her for a while, she was a big inspiration,” said Jade. Painting became her medium of choice.

Then about 6 or 7 years ago, Jade picked up scrimshaw again, beginning with what she called a summer apprenticeship with Chester. Chester is mostly retired these days, though he does dabble a little in dealing Asian antiques. The ivory, he passed to Jade. Her career as a scrimshander will last as long as the ivory does.

“I have enough to go a while and enjoy the ride,” she said. I have a few dozen teeth, a lot of what my dad considered scrap. When he was running his shops in the 1980’s it was still common to find ivory; what he considered a scrap, I can actually do a lot with. I hope to do it justice.”
Jade met Steven Teixeira, her partner in life and work in 2019, when he asked her to exhibit at Open Secret, an event space and gallery he ran with his former partner. “I was aware of her as an artist, before I knew her,” he said. “Once I saw her scrimshaw, and held it, I felt I understood her. She had been working with this sacred material her whole life.”

“It’s a vanishing art, with lots of restrictions and limitations which make it a real challenge and the fact that she’s open to take it on; it’s profound,” said Steven, who handles the marketing, and working with customers, while Jade spends her time working at her dad’s old desk. “She enjoys the company of teeth better,” Steven jokes.

The technique

Jade works strictly by hand, etching with a carbide tip, and filling the lines with black India ink, or alternatively oil paint. These days, a lot of commercial scrimshaw is produced with the assistance of a machine; tracing is also an oft-used technique. Jade and Steven say that’s fine for those who want to do that, but it’s not how they operate.

“The essence you get from the artist is not there,” said Steven. “There’s a difference in the energy of it.”

“Seeing the movements of the artist’s hand, and the environment they are in, is really important. It’s important to treat everything as a unique work,” said Jade.

While most scrimshanders exclusively make stippling or hatching marks, Jade has developed a unique technique, moving her hand a different way, creating a more curved stroke. The effect is a rounded, softer line that lends itself well to many of Jade’s designs.

The legacy

“We don’t want any animals harmed,” said Steven. “Handing this material of these great beings that were slaughtered; it’s a responsibility.”

Which is why Jade will never be a “production” artist, or open a busy retail operation. “I have a responsibility to the limited amount of material I have.” It’s a common problem among scrimshanders.

“Custom whale ivory scrimshaw — to find an artist that can do that is very rare because they have worked through their ivory or what they have left they are holding for something special,” said Steven. “It’s a challenge we are wholeheartedly embracing and it’s worth it to maintain that integrity.”
Jade and Steven admit they are hoping to see a revival of interest in scrimshaw by a new type of person: animal rights activists who are against the sale of ivory and scrimshaw. “People who are interested in scrimshaw have typically been extremely wealthy, looking at it with a magnifying glass, sipping brandy…and we like those people,” said Steven, with a laugh. “But we also want to touch base with the people that love whales and respect them. Whales have forgiven us and they have a lot to teach us about forgiveness.”

“We want to remove the heavy commerce and share this art. Money’s good, it keeps us going, but it’s not our motivation,” said Jade.

Their new studio, Gotauco Scrimshaw, Fine Art & Oddities, is open at Howland Mills, in New Bedford, by appointment. They also plan to offer scrimshaw workshops; for more information, visit www.gotaucoscrimshaw.com.

“I love that the people who do make it through our doors are excited to learn about scrimshaw in an authentic way,” said Jade. “It curbs the commercialism.”

2021 by East Bay Newspapers

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.