Gourd artist Graham Ottoson knows there is something magical about cultivating art from start to finish right in one’s own backyard. Ottoson plants, tends, and harvests gourds in her garden, then uses those gourds as the medium for her art. It is a year-long process from seed to sculpture, and she loves every step along the way.
The Ithaca-based artist has a long history with art. She tried forms from stained-glass to pottery to photography, always on the lookout for art that truly spoke to her. When she tried working with gourds, Ottoson knew she had found it. Her first piece was a lamp, and at the time, she didn’t even realize that many other people were making gourd sculptures. She experimented with gourds, teaching herself what worked and what didn’t, and later took a few courses with the American Gourd Society.
Ottoson grows lagenaria type gourds, which grow in many odd and interesting shapes. “People who have seen gourds growing in the garden know there is this universal delight,” she says, her own delight evident. She loves the gourds covering her trellis all summer.
After fall harvest, the gourds spend the winter drying. As they dry, gourds develop a mold on the outer skin. Ottoson explains that the mold is normal; gourds are very different from squash. “It’s like wood basically. If you keep them dry, they are not going to rot,” she says.
Once dried, the gourds are ready to be turned into art. Ottoson washes off the mold and dirt of the past few months. For lamps and bowls, she cuts the gourd open and scrapes out the seeds. Not wanting to detract from the natural beauty of the gourd, Ottoson likes to let the shape of the gourd lead her work. She studies each piece and works with the gourd. “I [carve] vertical lines that run parallel with the veins,” she says. She uses hand drills with different sized bits, small saws and various potters’ tools for creating her designs.
When the pattern is carved to her liking, it is time to stain the piece. There are many paints and dyes available to gourd artists, but Ottoson’s favorite is a stain that turns the gourd an autumn-orange color. “Once in a while I’ll veer off into the world of color, just to see. But I always come back to this color.” When adding embellishments such as beads, glass marbles or pine needles, Ottoson allows the additions to enhance the already beautiful sculpture. She wants the quirkiness of the gourd, not her design or embellishments, to be the star. While lamps remain her favorite pieces to work on, Ottoson has branched out considerably and now makes nightlights, bowls, masks, piñatas and purses.
With the dedicated labor of her carpenter husband, Ottoson has spent the past year building a new workshop to house her growing business, Hands On Gourds. This fall, Ottoson will celebrate with a grand opening event with games for kids, crafts to try out gourd sculpting and musical entertainment. Ottoson wants people to come share in her delight at the magic and beauty of gourds.
As she settles into her new work space, Ottoson will hold gourd sculpting classes, participate in the Greater Ithaca Art Trail and create and sell her gourd sculptures. The new workshop will allow her to continue cultivating her enjoyment of gourds. “It works well as a studio, gourd garden and community hub,” she says. “I hope that it will be a place that people will come and be delighted by gourds.”
Find Graham Ottoson’s gourd sculptures online at handongourds.com, at Ithacamade in downtown Ithaca, and on the Greater Ithaca Art Trail.
by Amanda K. Jaros