Annie Calovich

November 8, 2013

Using their gourds: Wichita women make artful decor from garden crops

If I plant gourds again (talk me out of it, won't you?), maybe I'll want to try something different from the dippers I've already grown. (They are definitely worth growing in a smallish garden — once.)

If I plant gourds again (talk me out of it, won't you?), maybe I'll want to try something different from the dippers I've already grown. (They are definitely worth growing in a smallish garden — once.)

I wrote those words in 1999, after a gourd vine took over a chain-link fence in my backyard. I had worried that all the leaf growth was coming at the expense of no gourds – until I wandered into the next-door neighbor’s yard one day in late summer and saw scads of gourds dangling from the other side of the fence. I almost passed out.

The bumper crop ended up in my basement, hanging from the rafters, until the gourds dried out so that the seeds rattled inside. They then had to be scrubbed of the mold that develops on the outside, and they were ready.

But for what?

“What did you do with them?” Ruth Herron asked me as we stood this week in her gourd patch in southeast Wichita. She and friends Jo Ann Carlton and Barbara Christensen looked at me expectantly.

“Nothing,” I said. “I just enjoyed them au naturel. I’m not artistic.”

But these women are. They and a couple of other Wichitans meet weekly over a hobby that long ago got into their blood.

Here’s what they make when they use their gourds:

Chimes, vases, bowls, dioramas, baskets with handles, wall art, birdhouses, jack-o’-lanterns, candle holders, lamps, ornaments, cornucopias. As Herron harvested one squat gourd earlier this week, she was envisioning turning it sideways and making a purse out of it, with cut-outs at the top to make a handle.

“Just about anything goes,” said Carlton, whose basement has been the gourd workshop for the women for more than a decade. But before you ever get that far in her house, you know you are in the presence of someone who is into her gourds.

They hang from shepherd’s hooks outside, sit on coffee tables and countertops inside, dot walls, and bracket either side of the door leading into the basement.

“You haven’t seen the garage,” Carlton tells me.

I learned that the decorating of the gourds brings in all manner of art and technique and embellishment. Some gourds are painted, some carved; some have the addition of clay sculpture. Pieces of gourd are formed into embellishments of their own: Leaves of gourd pieces in autumnal colors fall down from the top of one birdhouse made by Carlton.

She has even made a lamp, the light shining out from small holes that swirl around the surface of the gourd. Gourd bowls are edged with leather laces, crochet-covered twine, braided sinew, coils of long pine needles that Carlton’s brother sent her from Florida in the aftermath of a hurricane.

The women use implements such as palm sanders, Dremel tools, and tiny electric saws and drills, along with products such as wood hardener, leather dye, gesso primer. Embellishments include metal buttons, feathers, antlers, beads, gourd seeds, egg shells. Finishes are burnished, painted, stained, silk-fused. Herron tried a Hawaiian technique on one gourd that involved scraping off the gourd’s skin in a decorative pattern and then filling the gourd with strong coffee, which the gourd drank into its skin, darkening it in the areas where it hadn’t been scraped.

Beverly Schneider and another woman put a notice in the paper maybe 12 or so years ago seeking others who would like to form a gourd group. About 60 people turned out for the first meeting, from all over Kansas, Schneider said. Members have come and gone over the years, and now the group is down to five active members. Christensen is the latest addition, joining the group a few years ago; Carlton had taken art lessons from her in the 1980s and thought she’d be interested once she’d retired.

The women also are members of statewide gourd groups in Kansas and Missouri, and travel together to see, sell and learn more about gourds. They had a sale of their gourds in Carlton’s basement last year, and they sell at crafts markets from time to time, but they have many more gourds that end up in boxes.

Herron is the only one among them who still grows gourds, though the other women are gathering leaves from their yards to spill over the gourd patch this fall.

Simply growing in the garden, gourds already take on fantastic forms, their seeds going by the names of bottle, canteen, tobacco box, dipper, kettle, birdhouse, drum, cannon ball.

The gourds go through an evolution from the time they’re harvested – heavy and mostly green – to the time they’re ready to be decorated, usually no sooner than nine months later, Carlton said. During those months they dry out, becoming lightweight and at the same time strong-walled like wood. Mold also develops on the surface, which can be removed by soaking and then scrubbing the gourds, wrapping the gourds in moist towels for a couple days, or placing the gourds and a little water in sealed plastic bags and placing them out in the summer sun to steam. Herron cures her gourds in the garage, to keep the moldy surfaces out of the house.

During one of the group’s recent gatherings in Carlton’s basement, Christensen was adding details to flowers and ribbons she had painted on the outside of a large round gourd, its top cut off. The inside originally smelled awful, so she painted Kilz on it. As the piece of art took shape, she was dabbing dots of paint along the edges of ribbons. She was considering finishing off the rim with a technique she’d just seen demonstrated by another gourd artist: woodburning the edge, chiseling it out, then rounding it with a sander.

“I don’t think people understand how much work goes into it,” Christensen said of gourd art.

Linda Mainz was using buffalo gourds that grow in the wild as the basis of penguin ornaments that she planned to give as gifts. “Since I can’t sell them, I give them away,” she said, but there’s a limit to how many gourds you can give one person over time, the ladies agreed.

Carlton was painting a birdhouse blue and wasn’t sure what else she was going to do with it. Many of her gourds have a Southwestern theme; she loves the look, and the gourds have a natural affinity for it.

Schneider was carving a nature scene including a bird on one side of a smallish gourd, using “my cute little gourd saw.”

Herron was woodburning flowers on a big bulbous gourd, following a picture she had of the design. “I try it out first on pieces of gourd,” she said.

“I just do it,” Christensen said. “If it doesn’t turn out, it doesn’t turn out.”

“It’s just a gourd,” Mainz said. “You can always get another one.”

If you’ve ever successfully grown gourds, you know it’s true.

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