From garden to masterpiece

By Lynne Turner in People

It all started when Karen Cheeseman’s husband brought home a package of gourd seeds many, many years ago.
Not knowing exactly what they were, Cheeseman researched gourds on the Internet. There was slow dial-up at her home near Dromore, just outside of Mount Forest, and not nearly the information that is at one’s fingertips today. But the former graphic artist learned that decorating gourds is an ancient tradition in Africa and South America as well as among North America’s indigenous peoples.
She decided to give it a try. That was 17 years ago, and she hasn’t looked back.
Growing and then painting and/or carving hard-shelled gourds hasn’t exactly changed Cheeseman’s life, but the art form certainly is a big part of her existence.
In fact, a selection of her gourds are part of an exhibition currently on display at the Minto Arts Gallery in Harriston until October 28.
The first year the couple only grew two or three gourds. Cheeseman was almost afraid to do anything with them. Now the couple plants up to 200 seeds each year, harvesting the gourds and leaving them on the back deck over the winter to dry. For the first time in 17 years, they had a crop failure this summer. The two plants that did come up where destroyed a month ago by hail.
“But I have a stash,” Cheeseman confided. “During the best year we grew 450 gourds so I have a big stash.”
“But the crop failure this year also means we have no green gourds and it’s fun to carve the bright green ones,” she said.
That’s how she started out, taking a scalpel knife, peeling off the waxy epidural layer in a intricate pattern and “praying to the gourd gods that they dry properly.”
Her methods have changed over the years, evolving into new and different finished products.
Her newest creation she calls “hanging bird thingys”—a bird created from a small decorated gourd with pieces of other gourds for its head, neck, and legs, anchored on a rock and dangling.
“I sell them at the farmer’s market in Flesherton and parents tell their kids not to touch them, but that’s the whole idea,” Cheeseman said, flicking one of the hanging bird thingys with her finger and making it gently move.
At one time she used pyrography when decorating most of the gourds. In ancient times in Africa and South America, patterns were drawn with a reed, the tip of which was heated in a campfire. Cheeseman uses an instrument much like an electric pen with which she draws the patterns.
“It takes forever,” she said. “It’s so time consuming, but they used to burn in the designs with tips of reeds, heated in a fire. I have no right to complain, as I was using an electric pen.”
For a time her dentist gave her used drill tips and she used them for her designs.
In a bid to get away from the dust and noise and what she imagined was the hydro metre flying round and round, she tried different carving techniques. Then she moved on to do dyeing and resists.
“It’s so… dusty and noisy using dental tools,” she laughed. “At the same time I was doing fabric art, quilting and wall hangings, making my own dyes and I decided to give that a try.”
“I was dyeing gourds with shoe dyes, recommended on the Internet, but I found the dyes were fading,” she said. “At a gourd show a weaver told me that dyes made for protein (leather) didn’t work on cellular materials, so I began using the dyes I was using on my fabric art and it worked perfectly.”
On some gourds she also does intricate designs using regular markers.
Because her background is in graphic arts, Cheeseman said she is obsessed with triangles and other simple designs.
“I like simple graphic shapes,” she said.
A selection of Cheeseman’s gourds is on display in Harriston: the hanging bird thingys, bird houses, vessels and gourds painted to resemble colourful slugs and other critters.
“I’m constantly curious,” Cheeseman said, “and have a great fear of boredom. So whether it’s quilts or painting or decorating gourds or silk screening, I’m always trying something new.”