Monday, February 7, 2011

Gourd [Curcurbitaceae]

     I use hard shell gourds in my work. I’ve been asked why. I ask myself why. I still can't fully explain it. I think that's a good thing. I am interested in the family of hard shell gourds, Old World Lagenaria siceraria, used for centuries in many world cultures for dipping, pouring, as containers, storage, carved bowls, and just plain decoration.

     Most people in my limited experience craft items like bottle gourds painted to look like Santa or a snowman. Much of the more sophisticated gourd artistry uses wood burning tools to burn in imagery and burr tools to carve in shapes and patterns. Mexican and Native American imagery and basket weaving techniques are very common. I’m not interested in any of that. 
     The bulk of the gourd carving and artistic work I have encountered uses the gourd as a canvas, that is, images, allegories, symbols are painted and carved onto the surface. The form of the gourds is rarely disturbed from its original shape, even those gourds that are carved. It’s as if the gourd itself is sacred and dictatorial. The artist, craftsperson or hobbyist can only approach it up to a certain level but the gourd maintains its identity as a gourd. Some of the work done this way can be very, very good. Much of it, however, is kitschy and tacky in my opinion. And too often, I find myself less than intrigued by the artwork displayed than the inevitable reaction of, “Oh look, a gourd.” The gourd stays separate from the art. I want to use the gourd as the art.
     I admire the more craft and traditional approaches to gourd work but I find those styles frustrating and limiting in my work. I look to use gourd forms as metaphors and abstractions. If you look at many of the shapes of hard shell gourds, they scream sexual forms. It’s so obvious but after people make the crude crack about the curve of the short handle dipper gourd or the bottle-necked gourd, they then set out to find a safer, more palatable, less offensive representation like… a long neck goose, or a literal reinterpretation of a whole human figure. When I work with whole forms of gourds, I either have to address a sexual identity question because it begs for it, or I have to dismantle the form and use the material for its other tactile and tangible qualities. 
     Hard shell gourds are light, carvable, accepting of glues, paints, inks and dyes. Left solid, they will float and bob. They burn out in a kiln, leaving cavities. They can be flat like mini-canvases or chopped into voluminous material. Cut strategically, a variety of curved planes are presented to the artist. A variety of textures, patterns and imperfections on the outside of the shell can also be utilized. The inside texture is inspirational on its own. To me, they need to be destroyed, used, cracked, carved, repurposed, trapped, combined with other media and turned inside out. They are a medium and sculptural tool. So far, whatever I've done with gourds, I feel like I'm not doing enough or I'm still limiting their use. For this reason, I'll probably continue to come back to them and try to integrate them into work whenever I need to take a break from other media. 

Crushed By Love, 2008
     Currently, I'm finishing up a boat load of badges carved from shell for the more functional, craft side of things. I'm also finishing up four sculptural pieces that are a continuation of the series that began with my BFA metal work on parent-child relationships and abuse issues. These start to break away from the relationship with the parent and begin to focus (hopefully) on the inner dialogue of the adolescent/young adult. When they're done, I'll post... Ciao for now.

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