Artist creates elaborate designs on an unusual canvas

Some might say Kimberly Dublo is out of her gourd, but the Hamburg, Ill. artist would likely consider that a compliment. Kimberly is a self-taught gourd artist with a love for the humble fruit that has become a palette for her intricate artwork.

From her rustic studio on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, she draws her inspiration from nature. Her earlier background of pumpkin painting and wood carving led to her current love.

Growing up with an artistic mother and brother, Kimberly naturally gravitated to art. Her mother got her interested in painting pumpkins, but Kimberly didn’t like that the pumpkin art didn’t last.  Her gourd journey began when she discovered a painted gourd at a local roadside market. Then, in 2002, she attended a gourd art festival in Kokomo, Ind. and became fascinated by the art that could be created.

As she got older, people were still wanting pumpkins with elaborate scenes on them, but there was no way to keep them from spoiling. Kimberly discovered that gourds, which are in the same family as pumpkins, would become as hard as wood once dried.

Kimberly never found much fulfillment in a flat canvas, but creating art on gourds combines her love of wood carving, pyrography (wood burning) and color. Gourds are now her primary canvas. She says, “I love that the organic and simplistic nature of the fruit makes it an overall perfect canvas for me.”

Her focus has shifted to extensively experimenting with various types of gourds and different techniques. Her business, Special Interest Artistry, has combined with Earthly Goods, a local grower of heirloom plants, produce and seasonal gardens. Her partner, Tammy White, grows the gourds Kimberly uses, making for an unlimited supply that range in size and shape. There are miniature and ornamental varieties which vary in thickness. Their hard shells are like wood, very lightweight and each has its own characteristics.

Kimberly explains that the thickness depends on the amount of time the gourd grows, and the longer it sits on the vine, the thicker it can get. Since she has an abundance of gourds available at any time, once picked, she has the luxury of leaving them to dry for a year. That way she is guaranteed the large ones are completely dry inside. Kimberly learned “if you open up the great big ones and work them, and they aren’t completely dry, mold can come through your artwork.”

Sometimes she will open and clean them out, but usually she doesn’t. Once dry, the inside membrane, which resembles that of a pumpkin, becomes fibrous. Most people dislike the time and effort required to clean out a gourd. Kimberly explains that it’s a lot of work to get the inside clean. She takes pride in having successfully created a method and the tools to attain a clean and smooth interior, with little effort. It’s one of her trade secrets, which she has chosen not to share.

Downstairs in her workshop is where she cleans and prepares the gourds. Upstairs is where the magic happens. She has a carving area with a work bench that contains a ventilation system that sucks up the dust that is produced. She also uses a respirator so that she isn’t inhaling the dust. After breaking through the epidermis, which is hard and slick, she gets to the soft cream-colored interior, which is similar to bass wood and easy to carve.

When Kimberly first began carving gourds, she used hand tools which were labor intensive and a bit more dangerous than the electric rotary tools she uses now. She has high speed cutters and a variety of bits which allow her to work faster.

She pencils her designs on the outside and then chisels away the epidermis until she has the textures she is wanting to achieve. Once there, she gives it a stain to help seal it. She can then paint it and add the final step of a protective coating.

Through trial and error, she has learned how to put more detail in her work and to use negative space. She also has discovered ways to use natural flaws to her advantage and enjoys experimenting.

When she first started, there wasn’t much detail in her work. Now she spends a lot of time doing the little things that most people don’t even notice when looking at a piece. Where she once did more outlining, now there is a tremendous amount of detail in items like feathers. One piece has more than 2,000 pinpricks on the lid alone. It’s that kind of work that helps set her apart from others.

“No two gourds are alike, each has its own personality,” adds Kimberly. “They might be the same variety, but I love that they aren’t the same. I just go with it and change directions as it speaks to me.”

The really thin gourds are more difficult to work with because of how easily they break, but she never backs away from a challenge. She is always pushing herself to see just how ornate she can go without crushing them.

“That’s what I find most fun about what I do,” she explains. “It’s a challenge to see how far I can push my boundaries. How thin can I make that line?”

The second-story window of her workshop looks out over the Mississippi, and it’s not unusual for her to see eagles in flight over the river. That view inspired a colorful Native American piece she says incorporates the eagle spirit. It features an intricately textured eagle in flight over an orange sun with a beautiful array of blues, greens, purples and oranges in the background.

Kimberly has a hard time throwing away the small pieces she has cut from a gourd, and nothing goes to waste. She salvages everything to make ornaments or jewelry. The pieces might even become the wings of a bird or blocks in a wooden quilt.

Her work became known as she showed it at local craft fairs and art guilds. People would see her work in shows and commission her for pieces. Each fine arts fair would take her a bit further in her business and she became very busy – too busy.

The commissioned work is very time consuming. She has taken photographs and combined them on large pieces, or incorporated images of a bride and groom with their interests for a special wedding gift.

One gentleman asked her to make a memorial gourd. He wanted images of a son who had passed away, a favorite dog, his son in the military, and one in prison who he would never see again. She incorporated them all on the exterior and made a lid so that he could put photos and mementos in it to pass down through the family. She has also made large lampshades with designs cut out, that when lit, throw patterns on the wall. Lampshades are a popular request.

One of her favorite pieces is an elaborately carved basket she made from a hard-shell gourd. She removed all of the epidermis so that she could get it to conform and sculpt the way she wanted. The basket is void of added color and has intricate layers of carved work. She removed all of the exterior so that if she ever decides to put color on it, the color would be even. The epidermis doesn’t take color the way the interior does.

Gourd artists use a variety of dyes, inks and other treatments, but Kimberly prefers to stick with less caustic materials. At one time, she used regular wood stain but didn’t like the flammability of it and the fumes could get strong in closed areas. Now, she uses more water-based stains. She explains, “I don’t go to any major expense to do my craft. I use what’s in the environment. I live in the country, so I might go outside and gather dried items from the garden and utilize them, or gather stones and rocks. Sometimes I mix my own pigment.”

In 2013, she won her first two awards from the American Gourd Society. Kimberly was actually scared to get involved in the society because she didn’t think her work was good enough. Needless to say, she was quite excited when she found out she had won. The organization’s magazine, The Gourd, did a feature on her and included several images of her work.

Kimberly also teaches classes. In one 10-week class, students learned a variety of techniques including wood burning, fiber art, decoupage and painting. She wants to teach more classes and will be doing live carving at an event in Winchester in October. She’s never done that before and is looking forward to the opportunity. She will also have craft-ready items with her because she says most people hate to do the prep work. It’s dirty, dusty and time-consuming, and they prefer to skip all of that and buy a gourd that is ready to use. She says that gourds are a perfect medium for children because they can use everything from paints and markers to colored pencils to decorate them. It’s only limited by their imaginations.

Kimberly’s imagination is stretched each time she works on a gourd. As she experiments with a different technique, she knows her imagination is the only thing limiting her.

Today, she is taking fewer and fewer commissions because of the time involved. “There just wasn’t the time to do the things I wanted to do. My mind is always on to the next piece,” she remarks. “I don’t have patience for anything but this, it’s my passion.”

If you would like to see Kimberly working on her craft, she will be at The Farm, 414 Hillview Rd., Winchester, on October 14 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. She welcomes anyone who finds an interest in her artwork, or gourds in general, and possesses a passion to pass on her knowledge to others. She can be reached at kdartistry@live.com. She welcomes visitors by appointment or by chance. More of her art can be viewed on her Facebook page by searching for Special Interest Artistry.