In Artists' Hands, Lowly Gourds Grow Into Decorative Sculptures


WASHINGTON (November 23, 2011)—Most people think of gourds as fall decoration or food, but several Marylanders see them as art.

"I put some pretty spectacular colors on the gourds themselves, and then I do a little bit of basketry," said Accokeek Creek Baskets and Gourds owner Byron Williams. "I tend to let the gourd shape show through. I think of it as emphasizing the gourd as opposed to emphasizing my artistic ability."

Williams is a member of the Virginia Lovers Gourd Society, whose publicity coordinator shares his aesthetic sense of homegrown art.

"You look at and you say, 'What does this gourd seem to want to have on it?'" said Gail Ratliffe. "It comes from the shape of the thing itself."

Maryland does not have its own gourd society, but gourd artists in the state follow similar traditions, including Pasadena resident Nancy Worley.

Worley sells gourds burned with ornate designs at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, and she said she does her best business in the fall because it is when consumers are most open to her products.

"This time of the year is really good because they're really conducive to Halloween and Christmas decorations," Worley said. "People are just in the mood to think about them."

Worley has created gourd sculptures, pendants and gourd goblets—or "gourblets"—from the fruits, and most of her pieces are intended to be decorative.

Williams said his business isn't necessarily seasonal. He crafts and sells sculptural gourds featuring bold dyes, basketry and natural materials like deer antlers and leather all year.

Williams splits his time between Maryland his second home in Saguache, Colo., where he features his gourds and other art in his private Smith Market Gallery. During his time on the East Coast, Williams also spends many of his weekends at the Old Town Farmers' Market in Alexandria, Va., as well as at gourd and art festivals.

"My gourds aren't really designed for the seasonal market, I mean I do sell some raw gourds without having any decorations on them," Williams said. "It has some symbolism in it and some people can appreciate that more than others. ... I don't appeal typically to an impulse audience."

Still Williams said his personalized works make excellent holiday gifts.

"Personal artwork does sell toward the holiday season for gifts, generally for special people or something because of the price," Williams said.

Williams' gourds range from about $40 to $600, he said, but people pay because they're revered as art rather than as tchotchkes.

"Some people want to have the colors that I put on my gourds in their houses—it matches the decor, it can be an eye-catching focal point in a room—so there's a number of different reasons, but my work tends to be more sculptural in form than functional and/or cute," Williams said. "They're generally treated as objects of art, so again, that kind of requires a special market."

Ratliffe said buyers value gourd art because it is so tangible.

"You can feel the art, you can put your fingers in the notches," she said. "A painting, you hang on the wall and you look at it, but a piece of gourd art you hold in your hand."

Decorative gourds come in all shapes and sizes—ranging from one inch to more than 3 feet in diameter. Worley said she uses different varieties of African hard-shell gourds, which naturally range in size, though most of her works are around 10 inches in diameter.

Williams said he typically works with gourds around the same size.

"Each gourd is different than every other gourd, even when they're growing on the same vine. They're different sizes, they're somewhat different shapes, their texture is different," Williams said. "I can, without fear of a contradiction, tell anybody that buys one of my pieces that they have a one-of-a-kind item."

Crafting gourds into works of art is no quick process—it takes between six and nine months for gourds to season before artists can begin designing them. During that time the gourds develop a thick layer of mold, which artists must first bleach and then scrub to remove. Once they've dried again and the interior is removed, they're ready for dying, burning and embellishing.

"What's really very rewarding to me is I plant the seed for what turns out to be my canvas and I watch the vines grow—I take part in every aspect of this art," Radcliffe said. "It's more than just starting with a white canvas, a flat plane. You have the challenge of a 360-degree canvas."

Ratliffe noted that raw ornamental gourds typically appear as autumn decorations, but she said they can be transformed into works of art appropriate for any season.

"Ornamental gourds are more popular (in the fall) because it's all part of that whole pumpkin and orange thing going on, but a lot of people don't realize that ... you can dry those also, so you don't have to rebuy them every year," Ratliffe said. "You can turn them into your own year-round ornamental gourds."

Although people can decorate with gourds any time of year, Worley said she thinks the fall and winter holidays the most suitable time to display them around the house.

"It's just nice to have something organic in your home to celebrate the season," Worley said.

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