Gourd art—creativity that starts from a seed
Jan./Feb. 2006 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
A retired art teacher turns gourds into artwork.
Arrigotti still paints on canvas, but prefers the three-dimensional platform of the gourd, where she can incorporate both painting and sculpture. A retired art teacher, she introduced herself to gourds about 10 years ago when she was looking for a different kind of art project to inspire her fourth-grade students.
"I drove by the little farms every day on my way to school and looked down at the gourds and wondered what you do with all those things," Arrigotti said. "I thought, now that would be something that would be really worthwhile to give all the kids and have them create what they can with them."
A cousin of the melon and squash, gourds—along with pumpkins—have been a decorating staple during the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays for many years. Most people recognize the ornamental gourds that appear during the fall season. But hard-shelled gourds are a different novelty and have garnered a cult following and subculture of their own.
The gourd art movement is strong and growing, according to the California Gourd Society, an organization that has spawned more than 20 regional offshoots of gourd clubs throughout the state. Its members are gourd enthusiasts who like to transform the unique fruit into their own one-of-a-kind creations.
But don't think gourd art is simply a country crafts pastime. Artists like Arrigotti have worked hard to elevate the arts-and-crafts identity of gourd art to what she considers fine-art status by exhibiting only in art galleries and demanding hefty prices for her work.
Her most expensive gourd to date, a piece called "Passion Vine," fetched $1,400.
Since gourds are inedible, they have no real culinary uses. But their versatility, thick shells and odd shapes have made them a favorite medium for artists, crafters and musicians alike. When they are growing in the fields, they are green with skin that's smooth and wax-like. Once dried, their skin becomes hard like wood, ideal for carving, painting, even wood burning.
"Unlike a sculptor who usually uses clay or molding material and comes up with whatever, the extra challenge with gourds is the shape of them," said Arrigotti. "So I'm always trying to figure out what I can do with a particular shape."
Some of her designs take weeks, sometimes months to conceive and execute. Many hours also go into preparing the gourd from cleaning it, to making the initial drawing, cutting and drilling.
Arrigotti, whose work is featured in "The Complete Book of Gourd Carving," said gourd art may be catching on, but there's still much misinformation about the medium, most commonly that gourds will not last.
"I don't think I would put this much work into something that's going to rot!" she laughed. "People are mixing (gourd art) with pumpkin carving, and that's a real insult when you think you're just a glorified pumpkin carver."
Gourd art has come a long way since the days of crafty gourd birdhouses and vases, Arrigotti said. At the 11th annual Folsom Gourd Festival in September, gourd items and artistic styles varied from booth to booth, just as gourds vary from field to field. The first festival was held on Zittel Farms, a little gourd patch in Folsom that remains the site of various gourd club meetings and gourd art classes.
The festival eventually outgrew the farm's location and is now sponsored by the Folsom Patrons of the Arts, which holds the event at the city park. Gourd festivals allow artists to showcase their work, said Lori Wille, president of Folsom Patrons of the Arts and director of the Folsom Gourd Festival. The festivals also give patrons the opportunity to learn about gourds and their history, often inspiring them to do their own gourd art.
That's how Uvonne Jones-Most of San Francisco got introduced to the art form. She saw some gourd pieces at a festival a few years ago and thought she could do a better job with them. She obtained a book on gourd art and has been hooked ever since.
"Someone's birthday came up and I had no money, so I took out a gourd and painted it and decorated it, and the person I gave it to loved it, so I thought, Oh, Christmas gifts,'" Jones-Most said. "I ended up making a whole bunch of them. After that, my husband said, OK, time to start selling.'"
She now sells her work via the festival circuit, most recently at the Folsom festival and at Southern California's Welburn Gourd Farm in Fallbrook, which also holds an annual gourd festival.
Rebecca Cileo, who teaches gourd-art classes at Zittel Farms, said it is the organic nature of gourds that inspires her Western-themed work.
"They're of the earth. They have a spiritual feeling," said Cileo.
Sutter County gourd producers Greg and Mary Leiser say artists will often hunt all day on their farm for just the right gourd to spark their creative imagination. Former rice farmers, the husband-and-wife team began growing gourds about 10 years ago.
They started small—about 5 acres—with the admittedly risky niché crop, growing mostly ornamental varieties. They added some hard-shelled gourds on a whim, and artists began lining up on their property, eager to seek that special gourd that speaks to them. Today, the 25-acre farm in Knights Landing has become a gourd artist's paradise, offering 24 varieties of gourds in all different shapes and sizes.
"Our strange stuff goes first," said Greg Leiser.
Since gourds have a very specific and limited market, gourd farmers remain tight-lipped about their cultivation practices, hoping to safeguard any techniques that keep them competitive, he said. Artists can be finicky about their gourds, he added, often requesting specific shapes.
But gourds are a tricky and unpredictable crop to grow. They cross-pollinate and meander through the fields as if they have a mind of their own, sometimes growing far from where the seeds were first planted and morphing into a different beast altogether.
"Every year is an experiment for me," Greg Leiser said. "It's still a learning curve."
Mary Leiser said she is fascinated by the history of gourds and the many different cultures that use them as musical instruments, bowls, water jugs, hats and masks. She's also proud of the gourd art pieces they've collected, many of which were gifts from their customers.
"It's mind boggling to see what they will do with these gourds," she said.
(Ching Lee is a reporter for California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)