Renowned gourd artists Ginger Summit and Jim Widess have teamed up again to author their fifth book on gourds, Gourds + Fiber. This title celebrates the intertwining of gourd art and fiber work. Although Jim and Ginger currently have many demands on their time, they kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
How long have you been a gourd artist and what inspired you to begin?
Ginger: I’ve been working with gourds since the early 1990s, when I saw Jim’s (Widess) booth at a weaving conference (I’m a weaver on the side!). The shapes were so inspiring, instead of filling my car with yarns, it quickly became loaded with gourds.
Jim: I’ve been selling chair caning and basketry supplies since 1969. In the late 80’s I noticed that a number of coiled basket makers were beginning to use gourds in conjunction with their work. Not only did the projects go faster using the gourd as the major container and the coiling as an embellishment on the gourd, but also their hands enjoyed the increased variety of movement associated with the gourd work.
How did you both come to work together to author five books?
Ginger: As a teacher, my first impulse was to go to the library and find everything that had been written on gourds. How surprised I was to find that absolutely nothing was available—not even a reference! After a little research, I learned that the last book published on gourd work came out in 1970. Although the information was excellent, the examples were sadly outdated. I had already attended some local gourd shows, and knew that much more was possible, given the advance in art materials and the imaginations of contemporary artists. A great deal had changed since that book.
A mutual friend mentioned that Jim had experience writing books, and after talking briefly, we both agreed that it was time for a new, “fresh” gourd book. Jim had already worked with Lark Books on a book about chair caning, so a phone call was all it took to get an agreement and a contract for a new book.
We put in a lot of work, finding as many artists and techniques as possible to make the book representative of modern gourd work. The resulting book, The Complete Book of Gourd Craft, was finished in six months (with lots of long hours!), but remains very contemporary in spite of its increasing age.
After that project, Lark asked us to consider writing other books that expanded on the topics initially introduced, such as musical instruments and carving.
I began growing my own gourds and when I couldn’t find any information available in the gardening literature, I worked with gourd farmers around the country to write Gourds in Your Garden.
Jim: In 1992 I attended a handweavers convention in San Rafael and brought some beautiful posters by the gourd artist, Robert Rivera, to sell. A mutual friend, Hannelore Cole, saw the posters and told me, “I think I can sell one of those posters for you. I have a friend who is a gourd artist who would love to have that poster in her studio. She wants to write a book on gourds.” Hannelore introduced me to Ginger and we agreed to meet to discuss the project after the weekend was over. When we met, within five minutes we decided to co-author a book, which turned out to be The Complete Book of Gourd Craft. That book has sold over 130,000 copies since its publication in 1996.
Your styles are so different. What’s your favorite embellishment technique?
Ginger: Jim comes from a basketry and caning background, so he is very familiar with basketry materials, and all the artists who work in that medium, who come to his shop for lessons and materials. This has been a tremendous asset in attracting artists both to participate
in the books, and also to expand their techniques to educate others.
I come from a weaving/textile arts background and although I was a special education teacher for 21 years, I did weaving for relaxation. My workroom and library are filled with yarns and all types of textile arts from diverse countries. I have traveled quite a bit with my husband on his work-related trips, and my interests are expanded by visits to museums and villages in other countries.
As for my favorite technique, it’s like asking any teacher or parent “Who’s your favorite student/child/interest”? The answer you invariably get is “Whomever I’m working with and whatever I’m currently doing”! While working on Making Gourd Dolls & Spirit Figures, I was completely immersed in the variety of dolls, especially the sociological implications of doll images in other cultures. When working on Making Gourd Musical Instruments, I spent weeks in local universities and museums around the world researching how gourds were used as the foundation for early instruments by most known cultures. I love the physical involvement of carving gourds. I have many gourds in my storage locker that one day may be used for carving, for dolls, or whatever new idea that may strike my fancy. I must admit that I continue to be amazed by the work of new artists! Just when I think we’ve pushed the limit of what can be done with gourds, artists come up with brand new and amazing creations.
Jim: Ginger is an amazingly versatile artist. It doesn’t really matter what the technique is, she’s able to make it her own so easily. Personally, my favorite techniques for working with gourds are making musical instruments and using fibers with gourds.
What developments in gourd art do you see happening in the next ten years?
Ginger: That’s very hard to predict, because the materials available to artists are changing so quickly. Also, artists from many different cultures, artistic backgrounds, and talents are becoming aware of gourds as a medium they can incorporate into their work. Therefore, I do see an expansion in gourd art, but it is hard to predict the direction it may follow. I have seen some exhibits of very well known artists who are just discovering gourd art, and they act with great enthusiasm. However, they are only just beginning to explore the possibilities of how gourds can expand their repertoire. I do hope to see gourds expand beyond the ‘craft’ concept and become accepted into the world of wonderful art. I know the “craft vs. art” argument is a sensitive subject, but many works in the gourd world today have definitely pushed the boundaries of what most people may expect from gourds. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “But that can’t just be a gourd!” They don’t realize how diverse gourds can be, and how they can truly find a place in so many parts of our artistic cultures.
Jim: That’s an interesting question. When we began The Complete Book of Gourd Craft in 1993, we thought we had all the techniques and possibilities already covered. Fortunately we already shared a vision for the premise of the book. We did not want to do a “project” book but rather show lots of techniques and then show what artists around the country were doing with those techniques. We wanted to inspire the reader—and inspiration comes from seeing a variety of artists doing similar techniques instead of one author’s take on a lot of techniques. I think that’s key.
So now to answer the question: when we put out the call for artists to submit photos for possible inclusion in the book, we saw so many new techniques and materials that we had not anticipated, we were in awe. There was a lot happening around the country, there had just been no way (no widespread use of the internet at that time) to share these creations. We were very fortunate to have been a vanguard in this movement and help spread the word about what was possible. In the future, I’d like to see more creativity with gourd masks.
What’s next on my wish list of projects to do?
Ginger: Once I have some free time, I’d really like to explore more carving ideas, as well as the combination of textiles and gourds. In two years though, gourd artists may be working with completely new media, and that will spark the imagination in many other directions! So it’s hard to predict what my next project will be, but gourds will always be a part of my life.
Jim: Gourd masks, eventually. I’m working on a project with an excellent potter on 15 woven teapot handles—another subject that needs a refreshing perspective. I’d love to find the time to write a book on how to make rattan and wicker furniture. I’m also working on a project with a broom maker showing how to make 12 traditional American brooms.