Giddy For Gourds

THE REAL DIRT

October 24, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Most gardeners preserve their crops in canning jars or freezer bags. But there are exceptions.

From her garden came the clock on the wall, the lamp on the table and the hat on Opal Lilly's head.

All were carved from gourds.

Likewise, a magazine rack, guitar and shoulder bag. Gourds, all. Even the porch lights at Mrs. Lilly's house in Florahome, Fla., were made from gourds.

And you thought gourds were only good for autumn table decorations.

In fact, these warty, hard-shelled ornamentals have been favored by craftspeople for thousands of years. Painted gourds were found in the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Cricket cages made of gourds, dating to 1000 A.D. in China, are treasured by collectors like Mrs. Lilly, whose home is a shrine to the common gourd.

Her collection of gourd art, one of the country's largest, packs two rooms and features dozens of handcrafted gourd animals, musical instruments and knickknacks. Here are gourd swans, cats and kangaroos; giraffes, owls and monkeys. Also a donkey and elephant, symbols of American politics.

"I carved some of the gourds, and I bought or was given the rest," says Mrs. Lilly, 79. "Most gourd art is made by retired people, who have made it a real hobby."

Raising gourds is like growing your own pottery, she says. The plants, which are kin to pumpkins and cucumbers, are easily cultivated. When the gourds are young and pliable, Mrs. Lilly likes to tie them in knots, giving the fruit an unusual appearance.

Her collection has been viewed by hundreds of tourists. Other attractions at her home -- one of a handful of gourd museums in the United States -- include gourds shaped like drums, totem poles and cartoon characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse (with ears).

One of her favorite pieces is a blooming plant in a flower pot. Both plant and pot are made of gourds.

Gourds come in many shapes and sizes, from long "banana" types to round "basketball" ones. When cured, they'll last for decades.

Carving gourds can take days, even weeks, Mrs. Lilly says. Consider the workmanship that went into a recent acquisition: an exquisite portrayal of Cinderella, surrounded by six mice.

"The man who made it was a genius," she says.

It's just another example of the versatility of the lowly gourd.

"People think of gourds as being useless. You just have to use your imagination," says John Stevens, spokesman for the American Gourd Society, which has 2,000 members.

One gourdist accumulated so much art that he built a museum behind his house in Cary, N.C. Marvin Johnson's collection of 1,000 pieces includes everything from a gourd Nativity scene to a basketball gourd autographed by North Carolina State's 1981 national championship team.

There is also a gourd "thumb" piano, whose keys are made from the metal tines of a yard rake, and a rustic sculpture of a dog chasing a raccoon up a tree.

Gourd enthusiasts from Japan and Australia have visited his museum, says Mr. Johnson. Now 89, he remembers drinking from gourd dippers as a child, and using gourd containers to store homemade soap, flour and sugar.

His prize possession is a 19th-century gourd filled with shot and gunpowder, for which he paid $200. "I hear tell it was taken off a dead soldier during the Civil War," says Mr. Johnson.

The matriarch of gourd-dom is Minnie Black who, at 94, still grows her own gourds and carves several new creations each week, as she has done for 30 years.

These days, she's on a monster binge, cranking out dinosaurs, sea serpents, dragons and lizards. Once, she made a giant pterodactyl with 3-foot wings made of luffa gourds.

"I'll make anything that looks wild and dangerous," says Ms. Black, of East Bernstadt, Ky.

Her wares are displayed in a renovated gas station beside her house.

Ms. Black, who has shown her gourd art on both "David Letterman" and "The Tonight Show," says the only thing she enjoys more than watching gourds grow in her garden is carving them up.

"I love this more than anything I've ever done," she says, "and I'll do it until I die."

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