Scrimshaw: A Whale of an Art Form

Utilizing the art of Scrimshaw, a centuries old technique originally developed by sailors on whaling vessels, artist Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky from Eureka is one of those rare individuals who has been able to achieve a lifelong career working as an artist.

Asked how she found herself working with scrimshaw, Mike relayed, ““It’s an American art form, it’s a folk art, and my bachelor’s degree was in art, but I loved American History too. It was a good way to put the two together. I was a sculpture major, so I kind of thought three dimensionally, but I loved drawing. I dabbled in it at first, and it grew from a hobby to way more than that. I’ve been in business now since 1979. Thirty-eight years!”

IMG_9390Initially adopted as a means for sailors to kill time on long ocean voyages, the art of scrimshaw is considered centuries later to be an important Early American art form. The men on board ship would use whatever tools and materials they had at hand; sail needles, pocket knives, ink, lampblack, discarded pieces of whale bones and teeth. Over time these creations became more imaginative and artistically sophisticated, often portraying nautically themed subjects or scenes of exotic locales.

Mike begins each new piece by lightly penciling a rough outline on her highly polished medium. Using a large steel needle, she delicately carves incredibly detailed etchings on often very tiny surfaces. It should be noted that Mike does all of her work without the aid of magnification. Once the etching is completed, black ink is wiped over the surface and worked into the tiny etched crevices to highlight the detail. The work is tedious and time-consuming.

IMG_9398Finding new pieces of bone or ivory to etch has become quite an art in itself the past decade or so, due to federal laws governing the sale and transport of animal ivory. Mike advises that she works 100% earth-friendly, often using an especially dense type of cow bone, deer antlers, polymers or reclaimed ivory from the keys of antique pianos. Every once in awhile a special piece is procured for carving, like a fossilized mastodon tooth from Alaska.

Before the internet was readily available Mike and her family traveled the nation selling her work at art fairs, but these days she sells online and at a few very select art shows. Her work is currently featured in 30 shops and galleries across the U.S., and each piece that Mike creates is completely hand forged and original. Her work has gained considerable notoriety, prompting her listing in the prestigious Early American Life Directory of Artists for the past 21 years, a curated collection of the top 100 master craftsman in the nation.

Scrimshaw is not Mike’s only form of artistic expression. She created illustrations for the book “Missouri Life – Lewis and Clark’s Journey Across Missouri,” cover art for “The History of Eureka,” and was an artist and designer for two of the STL250 Birthday Cakes on display throughout the Metro region in 2016.

IMG_9399Mike recognizes the importance of inspiring young artists to carry on artistic traditions, so she works with Partners in Education by going into schools and talking to kids about the history of scrimshaw. She has worked closely with schools and civic organizations to create ornaments for the National Christmas Tree at the White House for six of the past seven years. Groups involved with these projects include Kirkwood High School, Ferguson High School, Hazelwood Middle School and school children in Joplin, Missouri right after the devastating tornado of 2011.

“Joplin was an especially eerie one,” Mike recounts, “the school had been blown away so I worked with the kids in a warehouse. The teacher had no supplies … four paintbrushes! I broke down the project so that I could employ as many kids as possible. When I finished I sent in my report to the Governor and had to list how many kids we used. The Governor’s office called and said, ‘your report is here and it says you used 161 kids.’ I said, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ (The caller) was quiet for a minute and then said ‘161 people were killed in the tornado.’”

Mike’s advocacy for the arts does not stop there, as she has held some impressive titles over the years, serving as Executive Director for Boardlink, a non-profit training organization, the Missouri Artisans Association, Best of Missouri’s Hands and the state’s art guild.  In September she retired as Executive Director for Missouri Citizens for the Arts, an advocacy agency working to fund five cultural partners in Missouri; the Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Humanities Council, Public Broadcasting, Missouri Preservation and Historic Trust, and the Library Districts. Mike is also the Arts Editor for The Healthy Planet magazine, a health, wellness & natural living publication.

Retirement for Mike surely does not mean that she’ll be slowing down anytime soon. She is still creating scrimshaw and taking commissions from clients, as well as teaching studio painting classes in Eureka and Wildwood for St. Louis Community College’s Continuing Education program.

IMG_9396When asked how the general public can help to support visual artists, Mike encourages us all to “Buy local, buy art! You know I always hear from people, ‘Oh, look at this picture I got!,” and I’ll think ‘oh, it’s a print.’ Buy a real piece of art! There is so much great art available. Who knows, it could be the next Picasso! Support local artists and buy what speaks to you.”

She continues, “when you don’t see something that you really want, talk to the artist. They love to work with people, at least I do! We love to do special orders and collaborate with the individuals and make something that is meaningful for them. It shouldn’t just be something you hang on a wall or sit on a table, it should have meaning to you. That’s the value of art, that meaningfulness.”

You can view Mike’s catalog of work at her website,, or catch a live viewing at ASL Pewter in Ste. Genevieve on July 22-23.