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Menahga scrimshaw artist is regarded as world-class

Lori Ristinen of Menahga is a scrimshander. She was a featured artist at last weekend's Northern Cutlery Collectors Club show in Park Rapids. The flamingo eye scrimshaw featured here, would sell for $3,600. Scrimshaw is a very labor-intensive art form in which the artist makes tiny scratches, dots and stipples into a medium, then paints over it. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Lori Ristinen has barely begun to scratch the surface of her budding career.

Her custom scrimshaw business is carving out a niche, even in a depressed economy. In the process, she's becoming world famous.

"It's not a steady paycheck but I'm pretty busy," said the Menahga woman. "I'm a year behind in custom orders."

Ristinen began the art of scratching on materials more than a decade ago, going full-time in 1995. She doesn't work on wood, metal or glass, but works on just about every other medium.

Scrimshaw is an intricate form of carving that began nearly 200 years ago with whalers carving whalebones on ships to pass the time.

It became somewhat notorious when African elephants were being slaughtered in the late 20th century for their ivory tusks, which were a prized material for scrimshaw artists to work on. Ivory has since been banned for commercial trade and artisans have turned to more eco-friendly and synthetic materials.

The painstaking art of scrimshaw entails taking a small metal tool and making tiny scratches and dots on the medium's surface. Ristinen then applies paint to the grooved surface.

She begins with a polished surface, then removes the polish to make the surface porous. Then comes the scratching and stippling; making thousands of dots invisible to most eyes.

Removing the polish "makes the paint stay where I want it to stay," she says. She uses artists' oil paints.

She's excited because her microscope is coming this week for the highly detailed work she does. Occasionally she'll use reading glasses, but generally she works with her eyes, sans corrective lenses.

The result is highly detailed works of art: jungle cats, wildlife, fish, tiny scenic landscapes.

A photo album shows off her work, hundreds of pages of projects she's undertaken.

Her favorite medium is a substance called micarta, a laminated composite of layers of canvas, paper or linen. It's a durable substance used in knife handles and pistol grips.

She displays a post-card sized micarta scrimshaw featuring a flamingo eye peeking out from under a feathered wing. The price is $3,600.

She says she displays the pricier items to give regular customers an idea of what she can do.

"People can see these things and get their own ideas," she said of the high-end displays. "If people want it they find the money. Or they'll ask, 'Can you do it on this?'"

She attends only a few shows a year. Last month's show in Atlanta was "the best I've done," she said.

Her work enhances that of others; she collaborates with knife makers, gunsmiths and other artists to add her scrimshaw touches.

"I like the big cats, the African wildlife," she said. "I like things that have detail."

It's that attention to detail that is earning the scrimshander a reputation well beyond her Menahga home.

"She really does beautiful work, " said knife maker Gary LeBlanc of Royalton.