Gourd carving and sculpting expert Bonnie Gibson, of Tuscon, Ariz., has published a book about the craft.

Gourds aren’t just a plant in the same family of fruit as squash, cucumbers and melons. They’re also a vehicle used in the production of some pretty amazing art.

Passionate about their craft, numerous gourd carving and sculpting artisans gathered last weekend at Golden Hills Trail Rides and Resort in Raymondville for a three-day retreat featuring instruction and hands-on production. On hand to offer instruction was renowned gourd art expert Bonnie Gibson, a resident of Tuscon, Ariz., who has published a book on the subject and travels the country to share her world-class expertise at other similar events. Gibson said she’s been converting gourds into art for about 15 years.

“I started doing it for fun,” she said. “People would ask me how I did things, so I eventually decided I’d start teaching classes. I found I had a knack for it, and people seemed to like them, so now I travel around doing this.”

Participants in last week’s convention hailed from numerous states, and represented virtually all walks of life. Event organizer Sophia Delaat, who lives at the Golden Hills equine community, said many gourd artists don’t actually set out to become one.

“Most of us just kind of stumble on it,” Delaat said. “It’s a fascinating parallel universe to be involved in.”

Folks wishing to occupy that universe can in many states become members of official gourd groups. In Missouri, gourd art fans have the Show Me Gourd Society, while the American Gourd Society exists at the national level.

Missouri’s society recently held its annual competition in Springfield, and a few Texas County youngsters even entered pieces in the novice category.

Gourds are labeled a fruit because they produce seed on the inside, while vegetables don’t. Most gourd artists like to grow their own.

“You learn a lot by growing them yourself,” Delaat said. “They grow effortlessly; the idea is to end up with a good thick one, and you don’t want something immature because it will collapse on you. The more you get into it, the more you realize how much it’s about which gourd you use.

“Each gourd kind of dictates what you do. Each one has its own personality.”

Gibson, who calls her business “Arizona Gourds,” said choosing a gourd is sometimes based on the end goal.

“To me a good gourd is one that’s solid and has reasonably thick walls for carving, since that’s what I like to do,” she said. “And I prefer symmetrically-shaped ones, but other people like wrinkled up, shriveled old gourds because they make sculptures. But that’s not my thing.”

Among the most integral tools of the trade are rotary carving and cutting instruments manufactured by Dremel. As gourd dust covered shirts and pants worn by artists at work, the sound of Dremel tools –– similar to that of a dentist’s drill –– rang out for hours during last weekend’s retreat.

One of the best-known participants in the class was Merill McHenry, a retired college biology and art professor from McPherson, Kan., who is active in the Missouri Gourd Society (since Kansas has no gourd society). Having been into gourd art for about 10 years, McHenry has even acted as a judge at state-level competitions in Missouri.

He said gourds share some traits with a flat piece of wood – in that either can be painted, carved, or burned – but that the best aspects of turning gourds into art are in large part found in characteristics not shared with flat chunks of wood.

“It’s the possibilities,” McHenry said. “A gourd is basically just woody fiber, like a pumpkin, and the things you can do with it are incredible. Unlike a flat piece of wood, a gourd is curved and can come in so many sizes and shapes, which gives it so many more possibilities.

While McHenry lived and taught for a few years in Swaziland, in Africa, he saw gourds put to practical use as water pitchers, drinking cups, bowls, and many other items.

“People there would take knives and put them in the fire and then decorate their utensils,” he said.

When McHenry later lived and taught in Colorado, he traveled to the Rio Grande valley and saw some Indian pottery.

“It reminded me of gourds,” he said. “That’s when I put two and two together and started growing gourds to see if I could make them look like Indian pottery.

“That’s before I even knew there was an American Gourd Society. I found out there were gourd artists all across the country. It’s a fascinating thing to do.”

McHenry has earned blue ribbons at prestigious gourd competitions in several states, and enjoys sharing his prowess by doing volunteer work and classes with school children, teachers, senior citizens, and others.

“It’s kind of a hobby that has kept me close to my teaching roots,” he said.

In addition to being turned into visually captivating objects and practical items for every-day use, gourds are used for other purposes, like making musical instruments. But a fine piece of gourd art can sell for thousands of dollars.

“I give a lot of mine away,” McHenry said. “But I’ve sold some.”

Gibson was present when a similar gourd retreat was staged last year at Golden Hills, which was attended by about three-quarters of the same students as this year’s version. She said she’s not yet sure if there will be a “three-peat.”

“I usually don’t travel to the same place several years in a row because I like to get to various areas,” Gibson said. “But I might come back –– they want to, anyway.”

Show Me Gourd Society web address: http://www.showmegourdsociety.com/

American Gourd Society web address: http://www.americangourdsociety.org/

View a photo gallery from the gourd retreat online at:

http://houston.mycapture.com/mycapture/enlarge.asp?image=47759107&event=1670677&CategoryID=57447

I prefer symmetrically-shaped ones, but other people like wrinkled up, shriveled old gourds because they make sculptures. But that’s not my thing.”

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