Marilyn Royal: Finding beauty in gourds 2008.11.26

Written by David Green.


Every gourd holds a secret for Marilyn Royal’s eyes.

She can judge the value of a gourd by its weight. She can easily see the curve of the stem and determine the strength of its connection to the body of the fruit.marilyn.royal.jpg

The flatness of the bottom—it’s ability to stand erect—is simple to evaluate, a quick once-over locates any unique indentations and markings from its contact with the soil.

But there’s still a secret to discover, and it’s all about mold and decay.

Mold grows on the outer shell of a gourd and as it grows it forms a pattern.  In addition, the waxy, outer cuticle breaks down as a gourd dries and reveals the shell underneath. It’s what makes every gourd unique. It’s what makes some gourds resemble wood and others deerskin. It’s the pattern of the mold that makes some gourds become a beautiful work of art.

When Marilyn buys a gourd, she gets a vague idea of what it might become, but it’s not until it’s cleaned and sealed that the true pattern emerges.

“You wouldn’t think that an ugly, moldy gourd would produce such a beautiful design,” the West Unity resident said, “but the mold is really what makes the beauty.”

That moment of discovery when the hidden beauty is unveiled—that’s a golden time for a gourd artist.

Marilyn had already been involved in numerous artistic endeavors—charcoal drawing, oils and glass etching—when she first saw a decorated gourd at a craft show.

She gave it a try herself and fell in love with the process. Several crafters in the area paint gourds on a simple level, but as Marilyn puts it, “I’m beyond the bird house.”

She isn’t bragging—she has a fistful of prize ribbons to prove her skills. She’s simply making a statement of where she is and where she’s going with this art form.

She’s also quick to point out how limited her skills are.

“It boggles the mind to see what people make from gourds,” she said. “Mine are simple compared to those. There’s still a lot to learn.”

She’s seen gourds imbedded with turquoise selling for $1,500. She saw a gourd draw a bid of $20,000 at an auction—a gourd project that took a year to make.

Marilyn is growing both in skills and in equipment.

“I finally got myself the high-end wood-burning tool,” she said.

It comes with a variety of tips and is capable of burning ultra thin lines onto a gourd’s surface.

There’s also the discovery of “new” tools—perhaps something as simple as an emery board—to fill a particular need.

The goal, of course, is to imagine something new and to take the challenge to see if it can be done.

“I don’t want to go to a show and have something that everyone else has.”

The cold days of winter are a good time to dream of something new. Marilyn’s cutting, burning and drilling are generally done outdoors due to mold, dust and odors.

In the winter she draws designs and waits for the work to begin.

Each gourd is a challenge, she says, and working each one brings that time of discovery to see what’s revealed.

Buying gourds

Bushel gourds. Basketball gourds. Cannonball gourds. Egg gourds. Bottle gourds. Apple gourds. Long-handled dippers. Kettle dippers. Penguins.pumpkin.gourd.jpg

The list of gourd varieties goes on and on. One company provides customers with a list of 141—each with a small drawing—to help them make the right selection.

“I buy all of my gourds,” Marilyn Royal said. “We have too short of a growing season to get thick enough shells.”

When gourds are finished growing, they’re left to dry. Months later, when the seeds can be heard shaking inside, the gourd is ready to be worked.

Marilyn’s chief supplier is the Welburn Gourd Farm in California. Cleaned gourds sell for as little as $2.07 for the smallest to more than $30 for those with a 15-inch diameter. She’s seen a good bushel gourd sell for as much as $60.

Marilyn orders gourds by the box—a large assortment and the most economical option—and she also picks up some from favorite growers that she sees at the annual Ohio or Indiana Gourd Society shows.

She also buys an array of embellishments at shows, although some can be found as close as her own compost pile. She once found a root with a most interesting twist that worked perfectly for a handle. That find sent her to the village compost area where she found a few others.

She’s been fortunate to locate old jewelry at flea markets for a good price and use pieces in her work.

She even used gourd seeds for decoration.

Some gourds have a natural, pearly luster remaining on the inside. Marilyn sometimes covers the inside with home-made paper.

Gourd artists have a motto: Break one, make jewelry. Marilyn has a variety of brooches, pendants and necklaces from small pieces of gourd.

Wood-burning, chip carving, boring,  cutting, dyeing—the possibilities are endless, and Marilyn is always seeing something new and amazing when she attends shows.

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