Gourd-geous: Local artists use a different canvas

Fran LeBlanc painstakingly decorates one of her popular ornaments.

By Colleen Welch and Arlyn Macdonald

In her book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” author Elizabeth Gilbert encourages us to hunt for the jewels of creativity within us. Uncovering these jewels unleashes “big magic.” Two local artists found their magic in gourds.

Instant inspiration

Artist Marilyn Hammar creates beautiful works of art on an unusual canvas—gourds.

Grand Junction artist Marilyn Hammar stepped back from her 30-year career as a real estate broker in 2014. She joined an informal group of gourd artists, which met monthly. Having worked with watercolors for years, Hammar took to painting decorative gourds instantly.

“Working with gourds was a natural for me,” she said.

Within three months of joining the group, she was teaching other members her techniques. While she still teaches when she can fit it in her schedule, these days her gourds are in high demand. Hammar is a fixture at farmers markets, festivals and art shows throughout western Colorado. She’s the sole craft vendor invited to Fruita’s Moon Farm during its annual fall festival, and often makes custom orders for clients.

Hammar works from her second-floor home studio, surrounded by mature trees and growing gourds. A trailer on her property holds gourds waiting to be cleaned and ready to go. Their shapes inspire Hammar’s expert hand when she starts work on each one.

The lifelong artist

Montrose artist Fran LeBlanc finds inspiration in the shapes and colors of the natural world. Her innate passion for the great outdoors shines through her art, whatever medium she uses—including gourds.

She’s been a ski bum, a beach bum, a dude ranch hand, a travel agent, a housekeeper, a bank teller and more, but one thing has remained consistent.

“I’ve been an artist all my life,” LeBlanc said. “Not until I retired did I seriously start painting and taking classes. I’m pretty much self-taught.”

A stained glass artist, LeBlanc’s outdoor scenes adorn medical offices and private homes. She’s also a painter.

When a friend in Phoenix gave LeBlanc two gourds painted like coyotes, she was inspired to explore Southwest art, particularly Mimbres designs. She was in New Mexico with an archaeology group when she discovered yellow gourd vines growing on a fence alongside the road. She asked the rancher if she could take a few and he insisted she take all of them.

LeBlanc makes holiday ornaments from small gourds and uses larger gourds to create other Southwest art pieces by carving, wood-burning or painting the outside, then decorating them with stones, beads or feathers.

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The right materials

Hammar grows about 100 gourds per season, which helps keep her prices low. She also orders gourds from farms in California and Arizona, where the climate and growing season produces them in large quantities and a range of shapes and sizes.

Both women have refined the task of transforming gourds from their raw field state to in-demand works of art for household display and gallery exhibits.

Gourds must be dried before painting, a process that usually takes six to eight months. (Dried gourds may also be purchased from a dealer.)

LeBlanc soaks dry gourds in water overnight, then carefully scrapes any mold off of their delicate skin with a dull knife. Hammar dries her gourds indoors to avoid mold buildup. They dry in the sun four to six hours before the next step can begin.

Using special tools, Hammar cleans out the seeds, usually making a hole in the base of each gourd. At this point in the process, LeBlanc drills a hole in the gourd where an ornament hanger will go. Finally, the decorating can begin.

Hammar is adept at using a variety of inks, woodworking saws and carving tools. When she needs a special color, she mixes a variety of pigments to create her own.

LeBlanc uses acrylics to paint original designs on each gourd. When they dry, she sprays them with a clear, UV-resistant acrylic spray. The popular ornaments usually sell out, especially at holiday arts and crafts fairs such as the Ute Indian Museum’s annual show on December 2.

But that’s not important to her.

“In selling my art, it’s not about the money,” she said. “It’s the actual creating and producing that I love.”

Her kiva gourd won several ribbons at the recent Montrose Visual Art Show.

Hammar enjoys sharing the creative process with others. She’s considering teaching a gourd art class to expose more people to the medium.

“Everyone is an artist in one way or another,” she said. “The best way to discover what we love is to try everything.”

See Hammar’s artwork at www.artisticcreations.biz or call 260-7988. LeBlanc’s work is currently displayed at Art by the Park Gallery in Ridgway. Email her at livlots4@gmail.com.

Make your own holiday gourd ornaments

• Order dried gourds from an online dealer (or dry your own and come back to this article in six months)
• Soak the dried gourds overnight to soften the moldy outer skin
• Carefully scrape the mold with a dull knife until surface is clean and smooth
• Let air-dry for four to six hours
• Drill a hole in the top to insert an ornament hanger or ribbon
• Paint, carve or burn designs onto the orna- ments (acrylic paint works well)
• Apply a clear, UV-resistant acrylic spray when paint is dry
• Add beads, stones or other decorations as desired
• Insert hanger into hole

Arlyn Macdonald

Arlyn Macdonald

Arlyn Macdonald is a writer with a mission—to include a bit of education in every article she writes. Whether writing about miniature pet pigs or the “baconating” of America, she always adds some new information to her stories that her readers find interesting. Moving to Colorado in the late 1960s, she raised four children, worked as a nonprofit business consultant and legal assistant and self-published three books on personal development. Her passion is teaching and she is currently the senior minister for a Montrose, Colorado, church. She loves art, gardening and sharing new discoveries about people in her community.
Arlyn Macdonald

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