June Feature: An interview
I was recently contacted by Teri Henderson, a California gourd artist who was taking a class called the "Business of Art" at the Golden West Community College in Huntington Beach, CA. She was asked to pick an artist she admired and to interview them about their history and their art. I was very flattered that Teri contacted me and did her presentation on my work, including a slide show/laptop presentation on my website. She reported back that the other students were impressed and surprised by gourds as art. I thought the interview might be of interest to other gourd artists as well, the questions and my answers are below.
1) You're obviously a natural artist, what is your art background and what led you to discover gourds? When did you first start working on gourds?
I started working with gourds around 10 years ago. I stumbled on some painted gourds at an art show and the person making them had a few raw gourds she was willing to sell to me - I played with them and got excited about their possibilities very quickly. I'd tried so many different hobbies over the years that I already had a lot of tools on hand and it was easy to get started.
I took art all through jr. high and high school and actually planned on majoring in art in college. I took one drawing class in college and the teacher discouraged me so much with his negative attitude towards realism that I switched majors and graduated with an unrelated degree. (I was doing very realistic work at the time. He told me what I was doing wasn't art and if I wanted to do that sort of thing I should take photography instead!)
After retiring from a brief sports medicine career to raise my children, I started back into doing arts and crafts for fun. I also had a cottage industry for 20 years where I built dollhouse miniatures. I was getting burnt out and stopped doing miniatures when I got into gourds.
I usually teach myself basic techniques just by reading books, and over the years I have tried everything from stained glass to scrimshaw to wood carving to basketry, (and many other crafts!) and I also dabbled with more traditional art media such as watercolors. Fortunately, I'm good with my hands and much of it comes easy, but I am also a perfectionist and I do work hard at what I do.
2) You're designs and carving techniques are beautifully unique and I consider them trailblazing. What was your evolution to perfecting the intricate carving and cutting that you do now? Technique wise and tool wise.
I had done a lot of woodcarving for fun, I started that probably 25 years ago - so I already had a Foredom tool and a really nice Detail Master burner that I had been using for years. I carved duck decoys and small bird and animal sculptures out of wood, and all the skills I learned from that made the transition to gourd carving pretty easy. I also love Native American pottery, and the gourds were a perfect canvas for combining carving and Southwestern/Native designs. Over the years I've added a few tools such as an air carver and a few burs, but just experimenting with what I already had on hand was the most beneficial thing.
I always enjoy seeing what artists are doing with other types of media, so in addition to being influenced by Native potters I also get inspirations from ceramic artists, woodworkers and woodturners, leather workers, beaders, etc. I developed some of my "signature" gourd carving techniques just from trying ideas that came from other types of art. These ideas were innovative as far as gourds are concerned, but lots of those techniques are used by artists in other media.
Like every other artist, I have to keep reinventing myself and adding new techniques and ideas to keep ahead of the people that copy your work. (You also have to do things more skillfully so your work looks more professional than the copyists' work.)
3) What is your favorite part of your gourd art, from start to finish? (As simple as this sounds, mine is when I'm done wood burning and can scrub the pencil lines off and see the beautiful gourd and outlines together for the first time.)
I enjoy carving a lot more than I enjoy painting, so most of my gourds are pretty heavy on the carving and lighter on the painting emphasis. :) For my really nice pieces, I spend almost as much time researching the subject and designing as I do on the actual carving. I want things to be as accurate as possible; for example if I'm carving a particular animal I want to portray it with the appropriate plants, trees, etc. surrounding it, and I want the subject to be anatomically correct. I do spend time so the painting looks really nice, but carving is still the most fun part of each project for me.
4) Who is, or are, your favorite artists in any medium?
I admire Les Namingha and Russell Sanchez (Native potters), Helen Hardin (Native painter) Robert Bateman and Carl Brender (wildlife artists) Bihn Pho (wood turner/carver) and Pat Godin (woodcarver) among many others.
5) Do you try to work on your gourd art every day? Or do you have days out of your busy week that you set aside to work on them?
Since I've started teaching a lot I've had less time for my own art. That is pretty frustrating because even when I do have time for my own work I don't feel as motivated to create. A heavy teaching schedule can make you a bit burned out. I'm going to try to back off on the teaching just a bit so I have more time to do my own gourds. (I do enjoy the teaching though, as it's very rewarding to get others excited about gourds and carving.)
I would go crazy though if I didn't have a creative outlet of some sort. Even when I'm taking a break from gourds I might be carving eggs, building something, or just gathering ideas for future projects. I get all itchy if I'm not doing something creative, it's a compulsion. When a full blown idea hits me I am like a fanatic and I'll work on it every waking moment until it is done. Fortunately my husband took over the cooking when he retired and he reminds me to quit now and then to eat dinner. ;)
6) I tend to only work on 1, maybe 2, pieces at a time, I've always been like that no matter what medium I'm working with. Do you finish one piece before
starting another or do you switch from project to project?
I usually only work on on piece at a time - I want to see it finished! However, sometimes I'll have two projects going just because what I'm working on requires drying time or something - it's better to pick up something else during that time or else I would rush things that aren't really ready for the next step. (For example waiting for oil paint to dry or resins to cure.) I may get really into the second project and finish it before going back to the first one - it just depends on which one captures my interest the most at the time.
7) Do you take gourd classes yourself? What is something you want to learn to do - with gourds or not gourd related.
No, I've never taken a gourd class as many of the current classes are to teach projects instead of techniques. I'm interested in learning new skills, not how to copy a project someone else has designed. ( In my classes, each person has the freedom to use their new skills to create a gourd that looks different from their neighbors'!) I'd rather get a good book at the library and teach myself anyway. I do think it's flattering that many of the teachers out there in the gourd world are my former students!
I have taken a couple of classes on silversmithing and lost wax casting because I got to use their expensive equipment at the class. No sense buying all that stuff yourself until you find out if you like it. I also took one class on native pottery techniques, we went out to dig and process our own clay and I've never seen a book that taught those things. I've learned almost everything else on my own through books or just by talking to people about what they do.
If I were to take any classes in the future it would be to learn from someone working in a different media.
8) Do you have a special memory of a person or group who has purchased one of your pieces of art? Or an award you are particularly proud of?
Your first major sale is always very exciting, it makes you feel good to know someone actually likes what you've done well enough to pay you for it. However, the most exciting thing for me was just getting a gallery to accept my gourds in the first place - many galleries don't consider gourds as fine art.
I don't get too excited about awards, as they are so subjective. I know myself whether something I've done is good or not. I do enter things in competitions occasionally because people that buy my work like to have the ribbons with the piece; I don't keep the ribbons myself. Winning "stuff" is good though, I have won some monetary prizes and some tools and that was really great!