Hippo Manchester
October 6, 2005


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Using nature as a canvas

Merrimack artist revisits the many and growing uses of the gourd

By Michelle Saturley     msaturley@hippopress.com

When Merrimack-based artist Micheline (no last name, please) was visiting a friend in Asheville, N.C., she went to a pottery studio, where she found the most enchanting — and surprising — pieces.

“I saw this piece that I thought was pottery, and I picked it up to look at it closer,” she said. “I realized that it wasn’t pottery at all. It was a gourd that had been painted to look like pottery.”

Upon her return to Merrimack, Micheline, who had been working with furniture design and floral arrangements, began researching gourds. She soon discovered that the decoration of gourds was only one of the many uses of this underrated vegetable.

“Some of the first tools used by primitive man were gourds,” Micheline said. “They used gourds to store things, because the outer shell is very rugged. The pilgrims at Plymouth Rock actually used hollowed-out gourds to store food in. In the middle ages they would empty out gourds and use them as lamps. Some people even used them as currency. They’re probably the most versatile object found in nature.”

There are hundreds of different species of gourds, including pumpkins, squash, melons and even cucumbers. Some are edible, some are completely hollow inside, while others are actually toxic to humans. Each species has a different color, shape and size.

“That’s what I like best about working with them,” Micheline said. “Each gourd is different; they have unique shapes and indentations and markings on them. They’re like nature’s canvas.”

Since gourds don’t grow year-round in New Hampshire, Micheline often sends away to greenhouses in other parts of the country for her little canvases. Once she finds a gourd with the particular shape or color that interests her, she begins her process by cleaning the outside of the piece with water and bleach. The gourds take a long time to completely dry, and when they do, the seeds will rattle. When the gourd is completely dry, she begins the fun part: the painting and decoration.

“I usually let the shape and color of the gourd dictate what the design is going to be,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll have a certain concept in my mind beforehand, but it’s really the gourd itself that determines the result.”

When her design is complete, Micheline adds found natural objects such as pine needles to complete the look, and then covers the finished product in a shellac to preserve the colors.

“A well-preserved gourd can last a very long time,” she said. “And because they’re hollow, you can use them to put things in, such as a dry floral arrangement. I’ve been thinking about waterproofing the insides so you can put water in them and use them as cut-flower vases.”

Micheline says that this time of year is the most popular for her creations.

“Decorative gourds are popular for Thanksgiving and Christmas, because they represent harvest time,” she said. “I do more business from September to December than all the rest of the year combined.”

In the spirit of Halloween, Micheline is now experimenting with carving gourds into masks.

“I just finished a new mask design, and I just love it,” she said. “I cut the gourd in half, lengthwise, to make a mask that can be worn or hung on a wall. I use natural objects like feathers to decorate it.”

Currently, Micheline’s decorative gourds are showcased at Bilancia Gallery on West Pearl St. in Nashua. She will be a featured artist at Gallery One, located at 5 Pine St. Ext., Nashua, for the November Art Walk. For more information about the Art Walk, go to greatamericandowntown.org.