It really is a small world: In reviewing some of the places that the 100 mile ART Project has gone, Maggie read about the Mastodon tusk from West Lorne and it turns out that she lived in West Lorne for many years. She went on to say that there were cliffs of clay around there that were amazing and might hold some interesting rocks … So Reiner, Maggie and I headed down to West Lorne to take a look.
Susan Andrews, from the St. Thomas Public Library, was kind enough to send me a copy of a newspaper article about the find of the mastodon tusk in West Lorne. It is from August 21, 1947. The mastodon tusk that Peter Russel donated to this project was a real treat for me and has added an extra dimension to this project. I hope you enjoy reading a bit of this history behind this artifact.
Special thanks to Susan Andrews and the St. Thomas Public Library for her help and work in providing the clipping.
Firing eleven-thousand year old ivory is a bit of a nerve wracking experience. During this process I began to rehearse in my mind what I would say to Peter Russel if something went wrong; and if I would ask for more to make a second attempt … Early on in my attempts to make ivory black I had received some wonderful walrus tusk ivory and excitedly fired it only to find that that my container had cracked and the resulting rush of oxygen had turned the tusk into ash. Since bone-ash has no value as a pigment, this was very disheartening.
Beyond that worry, I also had to solve a problem: How could I safely calcify a small sample? Remembering a pottery class I took a few years ago, I recalled that sand had a very high flux point, so the idea came to me that I could use it as a fill. I tested my idea on a piano key I had around the studio, and the results were good. So, with trepidation, I loaded up my container with the mastodon tusk, packed it with sand, and dropped it into my stove.
After a few hours had passed I fished around in the hot coals and pulled out the canister – which looked fine on the outside – and put it aside to cool. While it was in the fire I wasn’t overly preoccupied with container, but now that I could see it I was very anxious to open it. I knew that it would be another three hours or so before it would be cool enough to handle, and that any attempt to quicken this could injure the ivory, so I waited.
The canister’s pings and clinks slowly stopped sounding; little by little I could place my hand closer to the outside; finally I began to count the length of time I could touch the outside of the metal. When I finally reached ten, I knew that I could open it. Removing the lid, I carefully poured out the sand, watching for my ivory nugget.
And, although dusty, the mastodon tusk remained whole and fired to a good black.
In the beginning of my search for a good black I knew that I would be burning something. There are a couple of minerals that can be used to create black, but usually the black on an artist’s pallet is made from the carbon left over after something has been subjected to the fire. And, without given it too much thought, I was pretty sure that I would be using bone to make my pigment.
But I was a little disappointed by this because I have really come to love the genuine ivory black that I usually use: It is much stronger in it’s opacity, more permanent and a better colour. But what could I do? In this project I’m only using materials naturally found within 100 miles and there aren’t any elephants in Ontario … or are there?
I was fortunate enough last week to hear Peter Russell, from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Museum at the University of Waterloo, recount his search for the dig location of the mastodon bones discovered at Highgate in 1890. Mastodons were prehistoric elephant-like mammals that were furry and stood roughly nine feet tall at the shoulder. So, perhaps there were “elephants” in Ontario, one just had to look back 10,500 years ago!
Afterwards I approached Peter and explained my project to him and asked if there was any chance that I might procure a small bit of mastodon ivory for my work. He thought he could help me out, and invited me to visit him at the museum. When I arrived later in the week, he had a little chunk waiting for me from what had been found in West Lorne back in the 1940′s
A special thank you to Peter Russel and the Earth from the Environmental Sciences Museum at the University of Waterloo for his wonderful help in this project.