Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Gudrun Ingvarsdottir, Icelandic immigrant, 
likeness carved
in one side of sperm whale tooth.
Washington Island -

Several weeks ago, at a meeting of the Washington Island Archives, Archivist Janet Berggren brought to our attention a carving inside a glass case. This item had been passed along from the Island Library, where it had been on display for a number of years.  
No one seemed to immediately know what it was, or its significance, although a hand-lettered label on card stock inside the box said, "To Icelanders of Washington Island from the Icelandic Association of Chicago."
The glass case, approximately 16 inches high by one foot square, held what appeared to be a carved sperm whale tooth, mounted on a wooden base with descriptions of the two carved figures, one on either side, inscribed in brass plates fastened to the wooden base. On one side: Gudmunder Gudmundsson 1840-1938. On the opposing side:  his wife (we assume) Gudrun Ingvarsdottir (1842-1940).
This carving was placed on a piece of what appeared to be a square of dark sheepskin, wool side up, of a very dark brown color, shades of which are found among some Icelandic sheep.
[As I write this, I've strained to see more closely their respective dates of birth and death, and I can hardly believe they both lived to 98 years of age!  That will require additional checking to see if my eyes are correct.] 
Gudmunder Gudmundsson, whose two sons,
Tom and Albert, chose
last names Goodman and Goodmander.
The glass case was secured with a light, brass hasp, but to ensure no one messed with the carving, a hardened padlock was snapped in place.  A key for the lock could not be located.

The following week I brought a hacksaw to the Archives in an attempt to cut through the lock.  No dice.  It took a bolt cutter to do the job.  Once the carving could be examined more closely, it did indeed appear to be a carved sperm whale tooth, with the moniker "Dory" on the underside of the base, along with the date, '70.   "Dory" was also carved into one side of the tooth.
The top of the wooden base on which the tooth was mounted (glued, it appears) showed the relief outline of Iceland, and basalt-like columns were carved vertically into the sides, representative of those volcanic formations found in the landscape of Iceland. 
The carving's date, then, was 1970, the same year the Washington Island Icelandic Immigration Centennial was celebrated, highlighting the arrival of the first Icelanders here.  (That same year, also in  June 1970, the new ferry Eyrarbakki was christened with well water from the Eyrarbakki school yard well.)
Janet searched the Archives Index for related articles, and she found that a Centennial celebration had been planned for June 1970.  A request was made in one news article for the availability of rooms to host guests, and 400+ pounds of whitefish were on order for a fish boil.  Several Icelandic dignitaries were expected to make an appearance, including a man who at the time was the Chicago manager for Icelandic Airlines.  But, no news photo or direct connection was uncovered regarding a carved gift from Iceland. 
Similar signature 
While we were convinced this was given to Washington Island in 1970, perhaps accepted by the then Town Chairman, the carver's identity remained to be determined.  The rather stern looking faces carved in the tooth I believed were similar to those faces, also of the Gudmundssons, that I had seen in a museum in Selfoss, Iceland, when we traveled there with a large group in 1987.  Ted Jessen had brought us to the Halldor Einarsson museum of carvings during that trip, that same man who carved Thordarson's furniture.  I recalled filming Jessen as he held up two carved wooden figures, and their likeness resembled closely those carved in the whale's tooth.  
Einarsson, who immigrated first to Manitoba in 1922, then came to Chicago, had left his Chicago area home for Iceland in 1965 after the death of his wife, in order to spend his last years in his homeland.  He took with him many carved pieces accumulated in his personal collection, and he then funded and established a museum in Selfoss to house them.  Einarsson died in 1977.  With continued good health, he could have in fact carved this commemorative piece, either commissioned, or as his personal gift. 

But, a few days passed before I made the association between Halldor Einarsson and "Dory."  On several of the sketch pages observed in one of Thordarson's notebooks, there appeared the same stylized name, "Dory," with its distinctive tail end of the "Y" extended beneath the other letters.  Dory was Einarsson's nickname, it appeared - or at least the way in which he signed his work.  
In my book, I attributed Thordarson's notebook sketches (dated 1931) to someone who had gained Thordarson's trust, and I suggested it was possibly the work of his oldest son, Dewey, who studied to be an artist.  Whoever it was, he received permission to expand upon Thordarson's creative ideas in those personal pages.  Wood carver Einarsson would have earned such trust, through his successful interpretation of Norse mythology in the furniture carvings he made for Thordarson's Chicago office.  Those pieces were later moved to the Rock Island boathouse.
What has not yet been decided is the ultimate disposition of the encased, carved gift to "Icelanders of Washington Island" that now resides in the Archives.  It is the general mission of the Archives - partly due to space available - to receive and maintain documents and photos, but not to collect and display artifacts.  It would seem that the Town of Washington, as the recipient and owner, ought to prominently display this piece where it can best be seen and appreciated by citizens and visitors (and not relegated to a storage room).  
The value of this piece lies more in its cultural connections, rather than its monetary value, although Icelanders who venerate Einarsson's work might look differently on this artifact. 
- Dick Purinton

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