It was a gourdeous day in Raleigh, Miss. last weekend at the Third Annual Mississippi Gourd Festival. Over 1,000 people attended the two-day gathering put on by the Mississippi Gourd Society where gourdcraft was showcased, taught and sold by artists from seven states and attended by more.
Dozens of booths showcasing gourds littered the Ag Complex. Some sold plain gourds in various sizes, from smaller than a thumbnail to taller than six feet, many were painted, carved, grown so they knotted themselves, and others had been fashioned into bowls, flowers, and jewelry with all manners of decoration on them.
Glenn Burkhalter of Lacey’s Spring, Ala. Has been growing gourds for more than 22 years. After retiring from a career as an entomologist (one who studies insects), he said he planted a few gourds just to try it and found a passion in trying to manipulate their growth. Burkhalter specializes in knotting and shaping gourds for aesthetic purposes.
“Gourds have been around since prehistoric times,” he said. “It’s believed that the gourd plant is one of the first domesticated plants and probably one of the first musical instruments. Gourds belong to the same family as the watermelon. They grow quickly, a single vine can grow up to 150 feet, and much like a watermelon, 90 percent of their weight when green is the juice.”
Once severed from the vine, the gourds become very hard, much like wood, and can be carved into. Burkhalter manipulates the growth of his gourds by hanging them from a trellis and letting gravity stretch them. He also uses ladies stockings to make them curl and loop.
“You have to tie it tight to make it curl. You start when it’s about three or four inches long. It breaks a lot of the time,” he admitted. “They don’t really like to do that.”
Burkhalter said it took him five years of breaking gourds to learn to tie a figure eight knot in his gourds.
He has also mastered a square knot, and has won the Jim Story gourd manipulation award in both 2009 and 2010.
While Burkhalter enjoys growing and knotting the plants, his wife uses his finished products to make her own art. Most well-known for her giraffes, which use her husband’s hosiery-manipulated gourds as the necks, she uses up to five plants and paint to make the animal, which sells for upwards of $100 each.
“It’s a hobby that keeps us busy and pays for itself,” he said.
Other artists paint their gourds for religious reasons. Ann and Richard Coghlan of Philadelphia, Miss. Paint their gourds with acrylic and also use dyes and varnishes to make vases, ornaments, and pitchers with elaborate biblical scenes and figures on them. They also use buck vines, grapevine, and muscadine to attach handles to their creations.
They have been making gourd art for 12 years, and say their business is a ministry for them also. “Gourds have been used all through history. The Bible mentions gourd vines,” she said.
Ann has no background in art or drawing. She said she started painting gourds suddenly and hasn’t looked back. “I started doing this after a great personal trial and the Lord gave me a gift. I have no formal training; this is all the good Lord’s doing.”
One couple picked up gourdcraft after both losing their fulltime jobs. Miriam Joy of Prescott Valley, Ariz. Decorates her gourds in a unique way, using Crayola crayons and a low temp melting pot to draw on the plants to create raised designs in vivid colors.
“I’ve always been an artist,” she said. “The Arizona economy was so bad that we both lost our jobs. We prayed about it and now we travel full time doing this.” The Joys also add other 3D elements to their creations, such as brass tacks and beads. They also sell supplies to do crayon decorating, which is popular with children.
Helen Looman of Yazoo City is spending her retirement enjoying the community of gourdcraft. After spending 40 years banking, she and her husband went to a gourd show in Ohio on vacation and Helen fell in love again.
Looman specializes in intricate geometric designs, and says she spends weeks on each gourd she crafts. Looman also has no artistic background, and says she can’t paint for anything, but found herself to be handy with a wood-burner.
“I love to do anything with geometrics. Circles are the hardest,” she said. “If you mess up on a circle you can see it.”
Her husband used to grow gourds for her to woodburn, but he died in 2010. Since then, Looman says she only attends indoor festivals because she cannot put up the tent on her own. She also buys up the gourds she crafts at the festivals she goes to.
Festival Directors Mike and Michelle Thompson have been into gourdcrafting since 1998. Mike said he planted a few gourds “just to do it,” but Michelle was the one that really got into it. Mike said Michelle found a book on gourdcraft and convinced him to attend a class with her. While she got into pine needle rimming, Mike fell in love with the tools they used. Now they grow 4-5 acres of gourds and sell them painted as apples, pine-rimmed, painted, leather dye-stained, and as bowls, lights, and more.
They joined the Mississippi Craftman’s Guild and the Mississippi Gourd Society, and when an opportunity came up to host a gourd festival, Mike jumped on telling the committee about the Ag Complex in Raleigh. The first year about 600 people attended, the second, about 1200. This year the pair estimate the crowd to be in excess of 1000 people, including children who attend for free. While attendance was slightly down, Mike said that the number of people who attended gourdcrafting classes to learn how to make ornaments, carving, and sawing and stitching was significantly up from the previous year and he is excited for it to continue to grow.
The Fourth Annual Mississippi Gourd Festival will take place the third week in September of next year. For more information, visit www.mississippigourdsociety.org.0