Gourd art involves creating beautiful one-of-a-kind collectibles using hard-shell gourds belonging to the Lagenaria species. Marilyn Sunderland a consummate artist from Utah uses these gourds as her canvas to capture the beauty of her surroundings.
For centuries across Asia, Africa, South America and the United States, inedible gourds have come in handy for a variety of purposes such as containers, utensils, masks, musical instruments, jewellery, dolls and much more. This traditional art form, still alive today, is practised with great zeal and skill by artist Marilyn Sunderland who lives in Utah, USA.
A professional artist, Marilyn has a Bachelor’s Degree in Art from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has completed a two-year art course from the Art Instruction, Inc. of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although she is adept at working with conventional art mediums, the artist confesses that she is most at home with gourds as her canvas, and her praise for these is nothing short of effusive.
She says, “The gourd is so versatile, it can be carved like wood, burned with wood-burning tools, painted in almost any paint medium such as acrylics, oils, water colours, wood stains and dyes, to name a few. The gourd can be embellished with beads, precious stones, wire, leather, fibres, pine needles, or even left unpainted to show off its own natural colour. The possibilities are endless. The gourd is truly a great canvas for the artist to create whatever his imagination can bring forth.”
Marilyn’s imagination, as we learn, is inspired by Nature, especially by the foliage and deep colours of Fall in Utah. Her fluid outlines of flowers, leaves and intertwining stems creeping around the gourd are artistically brought to life with the help of various textural effects and rich autumnal colours. To look at these gourds is to witness the beauty and magnificence of Utah in a miniature size.
As a product of Nature, gourds come in all sizes and shapes: eggs, dippers, kettles, baskets, apples, canteens, cannon balls, bottles, snakes and many others and it is often the natural shape of the gourd that determines its future; whether it will be transformed into a lamp, pitcher or bowl.
With the help of her ultra high-speed carving tool, Marilyn takes anywhere between a few days to a few months to finish carving a single gourd. She says, “I love the relief effects the carving gives, and I use my painting techniques to enhance the carvings. I usually carve the gourd first, before painting it with oils, acrylics, wood stains or dyes.”
Leaves and flowers are recurring elements in her designs and the artist often cuts out individual leaves or flowers from gourds and then attaches them to another gourd to enhance the relief design.
Once the inedible gourds dry up into a hard shell, carving these is similar to carving wood. “The difference in gourd carving is that the outer surface is hard like wood, but once you pierce through the outer shell, the inner shell is softer and needs a lighter touch on the carving tool when carving,” shares the artist.
Before Marilyn gets carving, she cleans the gourd with a mild detergent, scoops out the dried-up seeds and sandpapers the shell. Once the carving is complete, the gourd is coated with a pre-stained wood conditioner. It is then finally treated with a polyurethane spray varnish over the whole outer and inner surface.
In the past, Marilyn has won several awards for her gourd carvings from the Utah Valley Wood Sculpture Show and the Wood Carvers Show & Competition in Utah. One of her gourds was delivered to President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush at the White House. Although gourds tend to be a little fragile, Marilyn assures us that the thick shelled ones can have a longer life with the right care.
Sharing her plans for the future, the artist says, “I am still active in carving gourds but presently I have a new passion. I have started relief sculpting of horses. The horse has always been one of my fascinations in life and it is great to finally learn how to sculpt one of these fine animals. I love to design, paint and carve so I am always searching for newer avenues for creating art.”
Text By Christabelle Athaide
Photographs David Hawkinson