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Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

Gourds Earn Following in the Art World

October 06, 2000|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

Sheryl Baal can't resist. "We're going out of our gourd here," she says while preparing for this weekend's fifth annual Gourd Festival at the Tree Mover Tree & Gourd Farm in Palmdale.

As Halloween nears we expect a spate of pumpkin festivals, including the annual squash-related high jinks in Calabasas Oct. 21 and 22. But Palmdale's gourd festival is different. It celebrates the gourd, not as holiday prop or dessert ingredient, but as the favorite medium of a small but fervid group of hobbyists and artists.

Baal and her husband, Tom, hope to harvest 60,000 to 70,000 hard-shelled gourds this year on their Palmdale spread, originally a Christmas tree farm. Tom, the more loquacious spouse, explains that he and Sheryl got into the gourd business seven years ago when he saw decorated gourds at the home of one of his tree customers and mistook them for porcelain.

"We have gourds," he told the client, after she explained they were a versatile craft medium when properly cured.

In fact, Tom recalls, he had planted gourds only because he thought they could be used to enrich the soil: "We were going to turn the vines into mulch."

Instead, the Baals, whose surname inevitably triggers jibes about false gods and human sacrifice, discovered there are thousands of people out there who buy gourds to turn them into imaginatively designed musical instruments, jewelry, dippers, tortilla warmers, canteens, bowls, birdhouses, salt and pepper shakers and even the occasional genuine work of art.

To meet the needs of the gourd community (who knew there was such a thing?), the Baals now offer 50 varieties, from the long-handled dipper to the mini-bottle that crafters like to decorate as snowmen. The couple keep on top of the latest news from the American Gourd Society based in gourding's mecca--Mount Gilead, Ohio. They advertise to their niche market in "The Golden Gourd," the quarterly newsletter of the society's very active California chapter.

With the zeal of Ron Popeil pitching his spray-on toupee or rotisserie oven, Tom sings the praises of the infinitely useful gourd. "It'll keep food warm," he promises, and "It'll keep water cold." Humans were making good use of gourds long before they dreamed up the alphabet, he points out. Back when many of our forebears were wondering if you could do anything practical with the wheel, they knew how to turn the dried shell of a gourd into a vessel for storing water or a creel that would float as you fish and hold your catch.

Although hobbyists and artists are their usual clients, the Baals also market to the entertainment industry and others. "We supplied all the gourds for the 'Survivor' series," says Tom, explaining that those were Palmdale-grown gourd bowls from which Richard Hatch and the others ate their toothsome meals of rice and rodent.

"We've also been sending a lot of gourds to the L.A. Zoo," Tom says. There, gourds are used in the behavioral enrichment program, designed to make the lives of the captive animals less stultifying. Gourds are ideal for use at the zoo because they are natural and nontoxic and suit realistic-looking habitat displays better than man-made, plastic objects, he says. The Baals treasure a photo of Kalim, one of the zoo's female orangutans, with a gourd that her keepers fill with edible treats that the ape must hunt for.

One of the zoo's ground squirrels delivered a litter in a Baal-raised gourd, Tom says. And the keepers often throw large, round gourds instead of plastic balls in with the lions, tigers and other big cats. "They've even tried them with the bears but they just crush them," he says.

Although a gourd makes a darn good tiger toy, its best and highest use may be as an artistic medium. While crafters are content to turn gourds into kitsch, more and more serious artists are also working with them. A traditional medium for Native Americans, Africans and Latin Americans, the gourd fires the imaginations of other artists as well. Sculptural pieces in which gourds are incised, painted or dyed, covered with shell, beads or feathers, cut out or inlaid, fit into each other and otherwise manipulated are turning up in juried art shows. California is the center for this emerging art form, the Baals and others say.

Among the 25 vendors of gourd art and gourd-art supplies at the Palmdale festival will be Pat Boyd of Lancaster. Three years ago Boyd's sister enthused about a gourd art class she had taken in Pasadena. The women had recently visited Kenya, and Boyd soon discovered that the ideas inspired by her experiences in Africa found expression when she worked with gourds. Now she gets up at 4:30 a.m. to do her art before she goes to her day job as a physician's assistant at the Sepulveda VA Medical Center in North Hills. She returns to her gourds for a couple of hours most evenings.

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