In the Beginning, a Seed Gourds are closely related to cucumbers and melons. They grow on a vine that can reach upwards of 100 feet long. Interestingly enough, most varieties are not edible. However, God had a different plan for these vegetables. For the hardshell gourd, Lagenaria Siceraria, with white flowers that open at night; a curious thing happens to them. In time, they will harden and turn brown, they actually resemble wood and can be used as containers; and as many creative people throughout the centuries discovered; many other items as well, like birdhouses and musical instruments.
Drying Gourds In order for these gourds to go through this transformation, they first need to be cared for properly. Gourds will grow profusely during the hot summer months; you can actually watch them grow. As lovely as they are, they must not be harvested before the appointed time. They will continue to gather nutrients and mature through the fall, and only until the vines are completely dry; usually after the first hard frost; can they be cut from the vine. When the gourd is dry, it will last as long as any piece of wood. Only when a gourd is completely dry can it be crafted. You can tell it is ready by the weight, it will be very light, and the seeds inside may rattle. The color will be brown, no longer green. This is where the fun begins! If the gourd has been left outside to dry, it will have to be cleaned before use. Cleaning the remaining epidermis and mold and mud off the gourd is a dirty job, however it reveals the beauty of what lies beneath. Patterns will be uncovered, which were caused by that nasty mold.
First Steps in Crafting Now that the outside is clean, the inside must also be cleaned if it is to be used as a container. Of course, it can be left whole and uncut if desired. To cut, safety measures are taken as the gourd dust can be harmful to lungs. I use a small hobby jigsaw to cut my gourds. If you have ever carved a jack-o-lantern you know of the mucky mess that is inside. Imagine that same mess now, but all dried and hardened. This is what you will find inside the gourd. It takes a bit of elbow grease to get that out, I use special tools and some household utensils that I claimed for my gourd cleaning toolbox. Once the inside is scraped, I sand with a course sandpaper, and then with a finer sandpaper. I coat the inside with acrylic paint to seal it.
The Art Part The gourd is now prepped for the art. When I have my design ready, which generally means I have some rough sketches in my sketchbook and a clear idea in my mind; I will draw my design directly on the gourd with pencil. Then I use my wood burning pens to burn in my design, erasing as I go. I use a pyrography pen called a shader for much of my work. I use a low heat and build up the values. For sharp lines like the Celtic knots, I use a spear tip pen.
If there is any carving or inlay to be done I usually do that last. Although, there has been times when I do all my carving first, it all depends on my mood! If I decide to add color, that will be done and then I coat with several layers of sealer. The type I use is formulated to shield from UV rays, which can fade the burning if left unprotected. Even so, I caution my customers not to display their gourds in direct sunlight, it is a piece of art after all.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to finish one of your gourds? That varies greatly depending on size and complexity of each design. An ornament may take 2-3 hours, a large gourd that is full of carving, inlay and pyrography could take several weeks or months. There has been several gourds that have taken over a year from my idea conception to completion. Since I generally work on several gourds at once, it is difficult to keep track. Just like any artist there is more behind the scenes than the final piece. Much goes into planning, sketching, researching, revising etc. Then of course there is finding the perfect gourd, a challenge that those who work on paper and canvas do not have to deal with!
Do you grow your own gourds? Yes, I do grow gourds, but I still have to purchase many for my purposes! I visit local gourd farms, and I am blessed to have a few wonderful gourd farmers near my home. I also purchase gourds from farmers at gourd festivals, and those that will ship.
Do you teach classes? Yes, I primarily teach at thePA Gourd Society's gourd festivaleach year. Occasionally I will travel to other gourd festivals to teach workshops. I recently begun my own online gourd art school to offer video courses, visit here.