Scrimshaw. Printmaking. Oils. Watercolors. David Lazarus has found joy and a certain amount of success in all of these mediums in his 40-plus-year career as an artist.
by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Yet there always comes a point when he gets restless, when creating the art begins to feel more like work, and his thoughts shift to something new.
While he still works in multiple mediums, lately he’s turned his attention to abstract painting and is even toying with the idea of trying his hand at sculpture.
“I’m always shifting gears, I’ve got ants in my pants. There has to be some pleasure in the process. A friend once showed me how to prime this little panel of wood with lead primer. It took all day. That’s totally not me. Life is short. I’m a quick and dirty guy,” said Lazarus, who will be honored by the Artists Association of Nantucket at its annual gala this month for his four decades as an island artist.
“It’s got to be fun. Maybe that’s why I keep on changing. If it ain’t fun anymore, I don’t want to do it. If painting Brant Point is excruciating, why keep doing it?” His prints are meticulously-detailed depictions of marine mammals and shorebirds, the watercolors muted island landscapes with an ethereal feel, the abstracts filled with bold splashes of color and palette-knife marks that beg for individual interpretation.
“The breadth of his work is perhaps what’s most impressive to me,” Artists Association curator of exhibitions Bobby Frazier said. “He has this great rendering skill, but at the same time the ability to move into pure abstraction, from one completely different skill set to another.”
Lazarus is also a teacher, and spent a good deal of time this winter at the AAN’s Visual Arts Center on Amelia Drive, working with small groups of mostly novice artists.
“All of the people we have honored are not just artist-members, but have given back to the AAN community in significant ways,” executive director Cecil Barron Jensen said. “He’s got a legion of fans, and to his credit, he likes to keep his classes small so he can spend as much time with his students as possible. He’s a true mentor to our member artists, and the art students in our community.”
“I’m honored to be honored,” Lazarus said, sounding a bit perplexed by the whole idea. “I’m not one of those artists who has been the most responsible about dropping off and picking up my work for their shows, but I’m trying to get better. And I do like teaching.”
The garage studio attached to the Sherburne Commons home he shares with his wife Lisa offers a snapshot into his diverse artistic sensibility. The unheated, almost Spartan space is home to a pair of tabletop presses for his printmaking, an abstract painting on an easel in one corner and another on the wall, framed watercolors propped against a shelf at floor level and a couple of work tables, one of which holds a metal box filled with watercolor studies and dry-point etchings he sells at the Sustainable Nantucket Farmers & Artisans Market Saturdays in the summer.
Abstraction is a departure for Lazarus, but a welcome one.
“It’s fascinating me more and more. If you’re doing a panting, and you put a horizon line in, you have the illusion of realism in some way. In painting an abstract, you are denying yourself that, and working with a totally flat series of shapes. This new language, it’s very exciting, very interesting to me,” he said.
But first there was oil painting, which followed printmaking.
“All of a sudden, there was this wonderful, juicy plasticity of the paint. The liberation was fabulous after scratching on plates. It’s a very expressive medium. I loved getting it on me. Once you get liberal and free with a big dollop, your mouth starts watering. You feel like you’re icing a cake,” he said.
Watercolors are a different animal.
“The last couple of years, I’ve kind of fallen into watercolors. I’m not completely obsessed, but enamored of it. It’s a very immediate and joyous medium, sort of my happy time,” Lazarus said.
“It has its own level of looseness, but a tendency to misbehave when you don’t want it to. It’s harder than oils, and not always very forgiving. If you make a mistake with oil, you can wait until it dries, then paint over it. You can’t do that with watercolor. There’s a translucency that’s unique, and almost a Zen thing about doing it right the first time.”
Lazarus, who grew up in England, knew early on he wanted to be an artist, when he discovered an affinity for rendering images with remarkable realism.
“Around age 6, a pretty young age, I was rewarded by an art teacher. For some reason, I had that sort of rendering skill early in life. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m left-handed. I have the strange ability to make things look like things,” he said.
“Academically, I was hopeless at everything else, pretty disastrous. Fortunately I could play rugby, which got me into a decent school. I always joked about the fact that I’ve got a gift, but it stops at the studio door. Don’t ask me to screw in a lightbulb, because I’ll probably do it wrong,” he added in the same self-deprecating tone he uses to acknowledge most of his accomplishments.
“I feel incredibly lucky, the older I get, that I haven’t had a real job in my life. Scrimshaw was very much an illustration career, I wasn’t given much of a choice about what went on a lightship basket. But that’s a far throw from checking in at the office at 9 every morning. I’ve never done it. I don’t know if I could.”
Lazarus studied at the Bath Academy of Art in England, but soon after set out for Canada, hitchhiking and apple-picking his way across the country before eventually settling across the border in Bellingham, Wash., where he discovered scrimshaw. It was this art form that ultimately brought him to Nantucket, but not immediately.
“I saw some scrimshaw in a little shop in Bellingham, and sort of felt like I’d come home. It appealed to me as a portable form of art. It was
largely done on mammoth or mastodon ivory, highly-realistic renderings of wildlife and American Indian portraiture, a whole different school of aesthetics from the whaling type of scrimshaw you see on Nantucket,” he said.
He purchased a small pouch of ivory from “a big bear of a man who cut mammoth tusks up for a living, and set off on a lovely journey around America.” He ended up in Key West, Fla., where he met Robert and Inez Kareka, who allowed him to carve in their folk-art and craft store.
His early scrimshaw work was whimsical, full of gnomes and wizards and dragons, sometimes silent-film stars.
When summer arrived and Key West became unbearably hot, Lazarus took the Karekas up on their offer to head north to their store on Nantucket.
He arrived on the island at 23, and the themes in his work changed little until he met Morgan Levine of the Four Winds Craft Guild, who told Lazarus he wanted him to learn the traditional art of whaling scrimshaw.
“His timing was immaculate. He was instrumental in bringing scrimshaw and lightship baskets back in the 1970s and early 1980s. All of a sudden, I was employed for many more hours than I anticipated, working on baskets, working on whales’ teeth, sort of a production scrimshaw guy,” Lazarus said.
The magic didn’t last.
“There’s only so many whaling scenes you can do. I got drawn gradually back to a more whimsical form of imagery, which is where I segued into printmaking. I’m self-taught, and the printmaking I learned is very, very close to scrimshaw. You use essentially the same tools to scratch an image onto a plate instead of a tooth or ivory, you rub ink into the scratch, and put the plate onto a press,” Lazarus said.
“I loved it. It gave me the opportunity to put things down visually that were not just whaling things, the kind of clichéd stuff that was on scrimshaw at the time.”
Today, outside the occasional commission, he undertakes little scrimshaw work. Printmaking is far less ethically troubling, he said.
“I’d be horribly uncomfortable working with elephant ivory now. There is something incredibly ironic about scrimshaw, with all the people making a fuss back in the day about save the whales, they didn’t give a care about the elephants. There’s been a decimation of the African elephant population. The dark money that’s involved with this, the warlords, ISIS, the flow of cash from Africa to China that is dark and evil, to say nothing of the fact that these beautiful animals won’t be around. I have a ton of scraps in my basement, but my own personal feeling is that I don’t want to be involved in any new purchase of ivory,” he said.
Lazarus left the island for a brief stint in Portland, Maine about a decade ago, but like so many others, the siren song of Nantucket called him back. And while the man so quick to set out in new directions occasionally finds the island artistically limiting, its attributes outweigh the drawbacks, he said.
“When things become too familiar, they sometimes get too easy. I can paint a boat with either hand, probably with one eye closed. But artists making a living from their art have to come to terms that we are painting iconic symbols of Nantucket for our patrons,” he said.
“We are in a way working with a specific landscape on Nantucket. It’s incredibly horizontal, with very limited topography. The only real vertical you would be able to apply to a painting is the mast of a ship, the spire of a church. It’s limited, but it’s still great stuff.”
It’s why he’s not averse to picking up the oils and painting a dory in Nantucket Harbor, or a sailboat passing Brant Point, knowing he has a following for such work, one that in part enables him to pursue the other disciplines.
“When you invest in a place, don’t underestimate the importance of your client base, your reputation and the sense of community. Business-wise, I went to Portland, Maine, and people liked my work, but nobody knew who the hell I was. My reputation allowed me to return, and basically maintain a lifetime career here. If I have any regrets, it’s that I put too many eggs in this wonderful basket. I’m not a marketer. I should have gone to Boston, or New York, and opened a gallery. I like to think I could have expanded my client base. But I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to self-promotion.”
After more than 40 years as an artist, Lazarus still derives a visceral joy from his work. It’s a joy that can’t be duplicated in Photoshop on a computer screen, he said.
“I have tried to learn Photoshop in the past, and it never really worked for me. I like the manual immersion. I have no clothes without paint on them. There’s a childlike playfulness to painting. I enjoy getting my hands dirty in a responsible way. I am from the old school of printmakers. The smell of printing ink still gets my mouth watering. I have my own printing presses, but I’m not a mechanical person,” he said.
“I tell my students, keep a sketchbook by the coffeepot. It’s like doing yoga, or working out. If you have the discipline to get something into that book every morning, it will change your sensibility about everything. To actually learn that discipline, to learn that ability, can change the way you see the world. We are losing touch with the handmade process. It would be nice to think the paintbrush will survive the digital age.”
He also has no plans to give up his art any time soon.
“I look at some of the scrimshaw I’ve done, and to be honest, I couldn’t do that now. I was at the top of my game in my 40s. There is a point for most artists, and it’s important to me, of passing the baton of knowledge. I’m getting older, but I’m not retired, and I’m working harder than ever,” said Lazarus, 65.
“Life goes by quickly. All of a sudden, you are in your 60s and 70s. Monet and Turner, they painted until they dropped dead, and I hope I do, too. But it’s important to me to change it about a bit. That’s why I’m thinking about picking up some clay,” he added, moving on once again.///
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.