AN ARCHIVES MYSTERY CONNECTS WITH THORDARSON November 27 2013
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 a brass plate screwed to the wooden base. On one side: Gudmunder Gudmundsson 1840-1938, and his wife (we assumed) Gudrun Ingvarsdottir (1842-1940).
The carving had been set loosely on a piece of what appeared to be dark sheepskin, wool side up, a very dark brown color the shade of which can be found in 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!]
The glass case had a light brass hasp, and to ensure no one messed with the carving, it had been secured with a hardened Masterlock padlock. No key came with it.
The following week, I brought a hacksaw in an attempt to cut the lock. No dice. I then located a bolt cutter and the lock was removed. At closer inspection of the carving, it did indeed appear to be a sperm whale's tooth, carved by someone with the moniker "Dory." This name and date '70 was carved into the underside of the wooden base, and "Dory" was also carved on one side of the tooth.
The wooden base on which the tooth was mounted (glued, it appears) had the relief of Iceland, with columns carved vertically into the sides representative of basalt columns found in the landscape of Iceland.
The date of the carving, as it appeared then, was 1970, the same year as the Washington Island Centennial Celebration, highlighting the arrival of the first Icelanders here. (That same year, and probably at that same time when the celebration was planned June, the ferry Eyrarbakki was christened with well water brought from the Eyrarbakki school yard well.)
Janet searched the Archives Index for related articles and found that a large celebration had been planned for June 1970, and that a request had been made in one news article for available rooms to host guests, and that some 400+ pounds of whitefish were on order for a fish boil. Several Icelandic dignitaries were expected to be present, including a man who at the time was the Chicago manager for Icelandic Airlines. But no news photo or direct connection was made of a carved gift from Iceland, through the Icelandic Association of Chicago.
While we became convinced this had been given to Washington Island, perhaps accepted by the Town's Chairman, who the carver was remained to be determined. The rather stern faces carved in the tooth looked similar to ones I had seen in a museum in Selfoss, Iceland, when we traveled there with a large group in 1987. Ted Jessen had then led us to the Halldor Einarsson museum of carvings, the same man who carved Thordarson's furniture. Jessen held up two carved wooden figures, almost exactly the same as the faces carved in the whale's tooth.
Einarsson left his Chicago area home and returned to Iceland to spend his later years. He took with him many carved pieces from his personal collection. He then funded and established a museum in Selfoss to house them. Einarsson died in 1975, so that with good health he could have in fact carved this commemorative piece - whether commissioned, or as his personal donation.
But, it was a few days later when I made the association between Halldor Einarsson and "Dory." On several of the sketch pages found in one of Thordarson's notebooks, there appeared the stylized name "Dory," with the tail end of the "Y" extended beneath the other letters. Dory was Einarsson's nickname, it appears, or at least the abbreviated way he signed his work.
In my book, I had attributed Thordarson's notebook sketches (dated 1931) to someone who had gained Thordarson's trust, quite possibly his oldest son, Dewey, who studied to be an artist. Whoever that person was, he had been authorized to expand upon Thordarson's creative ideas in those personal pages. Carver Einarsson would have earned that trust, through his successful interpretation of Norse mythology in the furniture he carved for Thordarson's Chicago office, later moved to the Rock Island boathouse.
What has not yet been decided is the ultimate disposition of the gift to "Icelanders of Washington Island" that now resides in the Archives, since the Archives mission relates to care of documents and photos, not artifacts. It would seem the Town of Washington, recipient, should display this piece it where it can best be seen and appreciated, not lost or relegated to a storage room. Its value lies more in its cultural connections rather than monetary value, although Icelanders who venerate his work might look differently on this Einarsson artifact.
- Dick Purinton