What transforms an object from the plant world into an exquisite work of art? Gourd artist Julie-Anne Wallewein will tell you it requires a great deal of time, hard work, and attention to detail. She takes great pride and satisfaction in the entire process that begins with a seed package and ends with a piece fit for a gallery.
Wallewein and her husband Ken and their two sons, Riley and Reagan farm in the Estevan, Saskatchewan area, and she began growing ornamental gourds in her garden over 10 years ago. “It was always fun to pick them in the fall to see the different colours, shapes and sizes.
“I tried drying them and did some research on the Internet. I found out how to clean them and bought my first wood-burning tool at a garage sale, and from there it was trial and error. Today my designs keep getting more detailed and elaborate,” she says.
Gourds have been grown for centuries and used as storage containers, eating utensils, musical instruments and ornaments. More recently, gourd artists such as Wallewein have taken them to new levels.
Wallewein’s artworks begin with starting the seeds early indoors. “I soak the seeds for a couple of days and nick the end before putting them in the soil. I cover the pots with plastic wrap to keep the moisture in, and a sunny warm windowsill is all they need. Once it is warm out, I move the pots onto the deck to harden off, and when all danger of frost is over the seedlings go in the garden. The longer and hotter the summer, the harder the gourds become,” she says.
According to Wallewein, gourds should never be picked until after the first killing frost. A long growing season will ensure a thicker-walled gourd, and they will keep their shape during the winter maturing process.
“Once cut off the vine, I place the gourds on a pallet for better air circulation and leave them in the garden over the winter. Their outer skin will mould and peel and the inside will dry out. They are left buried in snow all winter, frozen hard as a rock,” Wallewein says.
In the spring the gourds are placed in a container of hot soapy water with a little bleach and scrubbed with a pot scrubber to remove the outside layer. “It takes a lot of elbow grease, but the results are amazing. Underneath lies a beautiful wood-like finish. Now the creative work begins.
“Just holding a gourd, looking at its shape and exterior markings helps me decide what and how I want the finished piece to look. Some just evolve as I work.
“I love nature, so I work with a lot of leaves. I use real leaves and trace the outline onto the gourd and add my own detailing. Others I draw freehand.”
Wallewein uses a variety of tools for engraving, carving and burning designs (known as pyrography) on the gourds. She’s taken a pyrography class at a Canadian Gourd Society Show, but is primarily self-taught, saying the Internet is great for checking out new techniques.
Wallewein became a juried member of the Saskatchewan Craft Council (SCC) in 2011, and has had pieces displayed in galleries and in a touring exhibit.
As a busy stay-at-home mom, Wallewein finds working on gourds relaxing and rewarding. “Seeing people’s reactions to my work is a great morale booster,” she says.