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The Lady Who Loves Turning Gourds Into Works of Art

By: Kathy Diener

Date Posted: 2000-06-16

Laurie Parker always loved arts and crafts. For years she was a regular on the craft show circuit, exhibiting "country kitchen" items like breadboxes adorned with acrylic-painted cows and chickens. She never imagined that she would find her true passion in engraving fruit.

So how did she ever come up with the idea of turning humble gourds into works of art? Gourd crafting is actually a very old technique, with artifacts dating to the 17th century and appearing in North and South America, Africa, and Asia. Today gourds are still used for ceremonial purposes in many parts of the world.

Gourds are members of the squash family, but most of those grown today are not used for food. While there are more than 700 species, the Lagenaria is the gourd of choice for artists. They can grow as large as 3 feet tall and are used for anything from drums to bowls to birdhouses.

Some of the most exquisite examples of gourd art are found in China. Crickets, immensely popular as pets during the 18th and 19th centuries, were often kept in intricate "houses" made of gourds. In Japan, small bottle gourds were used as sake canteens as recently as 40 years ago. This type of gourd, or "hyotan" in Japanese, is still occasionally found in local antique shops.

Parker first became interested in gourds when she decided to hang several around her yard as birdhouses. But there was something about them that beckoned to her artistic sensibilities.

"Every gourd is different," she says. "They make you think. I could buy a bunch of plaques, all the same size and shape, and paint anything I wanted. But with these, there's just something in the gourd. I just look at the gourd until it comes to me, and then I think, "Oh, that's what it wants to be."

In the two years since she began, Parker has created more than 200 works of art. Her first works were small bottle gourds painted with acrylics to look like snowmen or Marines in uniform. Those were very popular among craft show patrons, and Parker still makes and sells them during the holiday season. Her latest works, though, are more sophisticated.

While the majority of gourd artists today paint designs on the outside of the fruit in acrylic paint, Parker prefers pyro-engraving, a technique similar to wood burning. Using a pen-like, heated instrument, she burns a design into the gourd's surface. The amount of pressure that is used determines the shade of the color that is produced.

She then applies a leather dye using a cotton swab, brush or porcupine quill. Finally the gourd is coated with several layers of polyurethane for protection. Using this technique, Parker creates vases and bowls depicting elaborate nature scenes, still-lifes, and intricate geometric patterns.

Parker's online gallery "Gourds By Laurie" at www.gourdcrafts.com features photographs of all her works, many of which have already been sold.

A gourd in the rough is a far cry from the work of art it becomes. Most gourds come to the artist moldy, discolored and infested with tiny beetle eggs. In preparation for crafting, they are soaked in a bleach solution and then allowed to dry. The process may be repeated up to 10 times. After bleaching, the gourds are sanded to a smooth finish with different grades of sandpaper.

While a hollow gourd certainly doesn't appear dangerous, gourd crafting can be a hazardous undertaking. There is a fine film on the fruit's outer surface that contains silica. Dust from the sanding process can enter the lungs and can cause silicosis, also known as miner's disease. To minimize this risk, Parker wears a surgical mask while sanding. Even with the mask, she says, she still inhales some dust.

"The next day after I've done a lot of sanding, I wake up coughing and my eyes are irritated," Parker says. "And when the dust touches your mouth, your lips go totally numb."

Nonetheless, Parker remains passionate about gourds. Recently, one of her most difficult and time-consuming pieces was accepted into the Houston Museum of Art, a branch of the Smithsonian. It is a leather-dyed bottle gourd, pyro-engraved with the image of an owl, which took more than 80 hours to engrave.

While Parker is pleased with her accomplishments and the demand her work has generated among the local American population, her motivation is simply a love of the gourd.

"Iím just lucky," she says. "I can do something I love and people want to buy it."

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