All in gourd fun

Communication Arts and Design students try their hand at the gourd craft tradition

The use of gourds to create art is almost as old as human civilization itself. Gourds are believed to be one of the first plants ever domesticated by humans and have been discovered in archeological sites dating back to 13,000 BCE in South America and 11,000 BCE in Asia. Sturdy but relatively easy to manipulate, gourds were perfect for both utilitarian purposes like containers, tools, and birdhouses, and cultural expression, such as masks and musical instruments.

Although gourds haven’t retained their place of prominence, they remain an exciting medium for artists who value their distinctive character and traditional role in human society.

Such is the case for Rebekah Wrye, who has been using gourds as her primary artistic medium for 30 years. As an artist, educator, and frequent participant in the North Carolina Gourd Festival (one of the world's oldest gourd festivals), Wrye is a foremost authority on the past and present use of gourds. In October, the Stephenson Center for Appalachia brought Wrye to Lees-McRae to share this knowledge with several Communication Arts and Design classes.

According to Melissa Ball Martin, program coordinator for Communication Arts and Design and Wrye’s longtime collaborator, “Many craft traditions are becoming ‘lost arts.’ I wanted to highlight a tradition that varied across cultures and had a connection to the Appalachian Mountains.”

Because they were so widespread, gourds have a lot to teach about human history and culture. By learning about gourd art, the students also learned how humans from many different civilizations used the world around them to their advantage.

“Just like any other discipline, students need to know the history—where it comes from, why did they do it, and reasons for evolving form and practice. Gourd art, like many other crafts, is based upon rituals and traditions that changed and grew based upon human development,” Ball-Martin said.

Ryan Aliam, a student in the Foundations of Design class, agreed that knowing the history of an art form makes a difference in how he approaches it. “The background information is vital and critical to seeing what you’re dealing with,” he said. “It makes you more open and comfortable with what you’re doing.”

In addition to introducing a new generation of artists to a 10,000-year-old art form, working with gourds is an exciting tactile experience that lets students push their creativity to its limits.

The extreme versatility of gourds is one of the things that originally intrigued Wrye. She said, “Dried gourds provide a medium that can be cut, painted, carved, woven, and transformed into both utilitarian vessels and fine art forms. My artwork has two main themes: wildlife and folklore. The folklore-based gourds are narrative and include dolls, instruments, and illustrated stories. Wildlife gourds depict realistic renderings of animals, often including quills, antler slices, and snake sheds as decorative elements.”

In her presentation to the classes, Wrye walked students through the various ways gourds can be transformed into stunning works of art. Then, the students were invited to try out a few techniques themselves.

Preparing gourds for crafting can take months, as the gourds need to dry out completely, but Ball-Martin and Wrye provided dozens of ready-made gourds for the students to work on. Gourd art is an exercise in patience—because the medium itself takes a significant amount of time to get ready, artists have to be careful not to damage the gourd and destroy several months' worth of work. The techniques used to decorate gourds include carving, chipping away small pieces, drilling or hammering holes, sanding, dyeing, staining, and burning. Any one of these techniques is easy to mess up, so thoughtful planning and a careful hand are essential.  

Even if the students don’t plan to follow Wrye into full-time gourd craftsmanship, the artist hopes that the experience of working with a new medium, especially one with such cultural significance, will help the students connect more with their own creativity and keep the tradition alive.  

"I hope that the students recognize the role of the gourd as an important aspect of culture and discover it as a format for creation,” Wrye said. “I want them to see the possibilities that are presented in this natural object that can be transformed in so many ways. I want them to be able to tell their stories, create something useful, and be able to pass the craft on."

By Emily WebbNovember 17, 2022