Gourds display her life

A healing process blossoms from an ancient art form

August 06, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

In the midst of life-threatening illness, Lisa McGann turned to art for solace and renewal. At a farm field near her Bel Air home, she stumbled onto a natural medium that has formed the background for what she calls "stories."

McGann burns images onto dried gourds. Her canvas can be an ordinary pumpkin or squash, or unusual gourds with names that describe their shapes - gooseneck, nest egg and cannonball - or speak to their origin, such as African kettle and Corsican.

"I started telling my story on the gourds, but it's really everyone's story," said McGann, a 44-year-old mother of three. "Everyone has pain and loss and comes through it to the other side. Art can remind us what is important."

Many of her painted gourds are on exhibit this summer at Gallery RoCa in Havre de Grace. McGann and gallery owner Rob Cappelletti are donating a percentage of the gourd sales to the ARC Northern Chesapeake, an organization that has helped McGann's 13-year-old daughter, Claire, live with developmental disabilities.

"This fundraiser has been a real community builder and will help with our kids' services programs," said Tim Quinn, ARC director. At the exhibit's opening gala, the gallery sold more than $3,000 worth of the gourd art.

"These are wonderful stories told on gourds, and they really hit home," Cappelletti said. "People really connect to the stories because there is something universal in them."

After recovering from two devastating bouts with cancer, McGann had hoped to resume teaching special education students, but anxiety forced her to extend her medical leave. A self-trained artist who "grew up involved in artistic adventures," she turned to what she knew and loved for help.

"I thought I could get back to my life plan, but that was impossible," she said. "I needed a new art form that could relieve and heal me."

Gourd art began for her at a Harford County pumpkin farm when the farmer, a fellow teacher, suggested that she try an art form rooted in Native American culture.

"She gave me a how-to book, and I started that day," McGann said. "I am using an old art form with a deep history and giving it an abstract twist."

For one of her first endeavors, she painted ancient Egyptian figures to symbolize her struggles with cancer and called the piece "I Am Beauty." The gourd's neck is painted with a ring of ankhs, the symbol of enduring life, and the body is filled with images of bald reclining goddesses to resemble patients undergoing chemotherapy.

"I have lots of emotional material and a richly blessed, challenging life to draw from," she said.

One large, unfinished gourd in her basement studio is a continuing piece dedicated to her three daughters. When she and her husband, Patrick, an engineer with Verizon, learned they could not have children, they decided to adopt.

"Mollie came to us from Minnesota," she said. "We adopted Claire through Catholic Charities from the pediatric trauma unit at Johns Hopkins, and we met Fiona at BWI after she came to us from Korea."

Claire, who suffers from a progressive seizure disorder, "shows how the human spirit is amazing in its resilience," she said. "She has given more purpose and richness to our lives than we could ever have imagined."

Dozens of gourds sit on shelves and tables in her studio while she imagines what to make of them. Each will eventually lend itself to a story based on some element of her life or something she has spotted in a newspaper or magazine. She also works on commissions, usually after interviewing her subject.

Cappelletti said, "Lisa will get to the core of a person before she begins working on a gourd for him or her. She doesn't realize what a fan club she has."

The mantel in the family room the tops of cabinets and several tables are filled with gourds, waxed to a soft amber patina.

"Some stay home with me," she said. "I can't part with them."

"Waking Bird," a gooseneck gourd resting on the kitchen counter, is painted with a dark band that delineates the head from the body.

"It speaks of our finding deeper meaning in the mundane," she said. "For me, that usually occurs when I separate my intellect from my heart, when I stop thinking and start feeling."

"The Other Mary," etched on a bottle-shaped gourd, depicts Mary Magdalene holding an overflowing vessel of healing water that circles the body of the gourd and becomes Mary's flowing hair.

Mollie McGann, 16, said her favorite piece is "`Good Night, Moon' because of its blue eyes and diamonds." Stained glass added to the piece created that effect.

Quinn, the ARC director, bought a replica of that gourd for his own daughter. He has two others, one a gift from McGann.

"Lisa touches everybody she meets," Quinn said. "This art is so unique."

McGann often works on several gourds simultaneously and takes months to finish one.

"You can tell she loves the work while she is making it," said Cappelletti. "She is bursting with ideas. As an artist myself, I enjoy seeing her progress in her art."

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