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Area artist carves, paints decorative gourds

After cleaning the gourd, Skellenger draws a pencil sketch. She uses a wood-burning tool to outline the drawing. Shannon Geisen/Forum News Service1 / 2
Artist Alretta Skellenger carves and paints gourds in her Nevis studio. Shannon Geisen/Forum News Service2 / 2

Alretta Skellenger uses a unique canvas for her art: gourds.

The retired fifth grade teacher meticulously carves and paints an assortment of gourds, often sculpting northern Minnesota imagery.

Her studio is nestled on a 10-acre tree farm on the shores of Owl Lake, an environmental lake near Nevis.

When Skellenger began designing decorative gourds around 2005, there were few other artists like her. Now there are associations, societies and festivals for gourd art enthusiasts.

"No one does them around here. That's alright with me, so nobody knows if I'm doing them wrong or not," joked Skellenger.

A decade ago, Skellenger experimented with pointillism. She turned to gourd art "as a means to satisfy a curiosity about the many steps required to create a completed work," consulting with a Californian friend of hers who made decorative gourds.

"I was kind of fascinated by them," she said. "Cleaning, cutting, wood burning, designing, adding color, carving all became necessary skills, requiring a lot of practice."

Raised on the West Coast, Skellenger spent most of her adult life in California teaching fifth grade. She has a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in educational technology. She specialized in environmental education. Upon retirement, she moved to Nevis.

She doesn't grow her own gourds. Because the growing season is so short in Minnesota, gourds are thinner here. She purchases them from Welburn Gourd Farms in California. The longer growing season on the West Coast results in thicker shells.

The gourds are left to dry in fields for a year. They can be purchased as is—covered with debris and mold—or prewashed.

Skellenger prefers to clean them herself, first soaking them in a five-gallon bucket, then scrubbing with a copper scouring pad. She cleans the inside of the gourd with a motorized, abrasive ball.

The dust is toxic. It's extremely fine, Skellenger explained, irritating the respiratory system and causing "coughing, hacking, sneezing and sniffling."

"The dust doesn't settle, it suspends," she said. Skellenger has an air filtration system in her studio to pick up the fine particles.

Gourds come in an amazing variety of sizes and shapes—apple, pear, canteen, cannonball, banana, Mexican bottle and basketball, to name a few.

"You're not going to find a quote, unquote 'perfect' gourd," Skellenger said.

She integrates the fruit's natural stains, cracks and deformities into her artwork. Seldom using a pattern, Skellenger sketches a pencil design on the hard, outer shell.

"Every gourd I do is different each time and I learn something new each time," she said. "Most of the time, I'll have a subject in mind and try to fit it on a gourd. I find I end up going toward abstract or animal."

She uses a wood-burning tool to outline the drawing. A gourd has different densities throughout its body, so she must move the tool smoothly and carefully.

"I always pull the tool. I never push it, otherwise I'd dig in."

It's difficult, tedious work, but rewarding.

Skellenger pauses to pet her Yorkshire terrier, Mara. The pint-sized, 10-year-old doesn't like to stay in the studio, but visits when she wants to demand attention.

Skellenger paints the porous interior of the gourd with a leather dye. She uses specialized, concentrated ink dyes and gold leaf to decorate the exterior, using a "high-tech" half of a Q-tip, cotton balls and thin paintbrushes. Sometimes she carves into the gourds, creating textured patterns, lacework or geometric shapes. She's recently begun experimenting with metallic dyes.

Skellenger is a member of the Leech Lake Art League, which meets weekly in Walker. It's a supportive group, she said, offering fellowship and helpful advice.

"Gourds have become an outlet for fun, creativity and for meeting other artists who share a need to be surprised by their efforts to embark on that great unknown: Art."

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