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Gourd Artists Converge At Casa Grande Festival

carved gourd
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Artist Debra Williams carves intricate designs into gourd shells.

It’s possible you haven’t seen a dried gourd since Thanksgiving, when they’re used in abundance as centerpieces, but in Casa Grande gourds are a big deal right now thanks to an annual gourd festival held there.

The Wuertz Gourd Farm in Casa Grande grows a lot of gourds, according to farm owner Waylon Wuertz.

“Currently we are growing about 25 to 30 acres of gourds, which produces about a half a million gourds a year,” Wuertz said. 

The family farm grows 34 different varieties of gourds, from “earring-sized to gourds that you cannot fit your arms around, and every shape in between,” Wuertz said.

There are stout gourds, twisted gourds, gourds with warts. Why would you want so many different kinds of gourds? 

“The thing about gourds is, they’re so versatile. You can carve them, you can burn them, you can inlay them. They’re just a wonderful media for any kind of artistic expression,” said Linda Hughes.

Hughes is one of more than a hundred artists who set up a booth at the 2016 Wuertz Farm Gourd Festival. She brought blue, red and yellow gourd bird houses.

Other artists unpacked gourds that have been transformed into useful items, like vases or instruments. Some gourds are unrecognizable after the hard outer shell has been carved away to create delicate patterns in the layers underneath. The longer growing season in Arizona actually allows the gourd shells to become thicker, giving artists more room to play without the gourd crumbling into pieces. 

Other gourds have lent their unusual shape to the body or head of an animal. Kathy Waldow with the Arizona Gourd Society is helping with the festival’s competition. One competition piece is a gourd that was painted to look like a fish. 

“There are so many (artists) that can look at a gourd and go, this is what it looks like to me,” Waldow said.

Picking out the perfect gourd is where artist Debra Williams starts her creative process. It’s not like picking out a blank canvas, she says, because every canvas is different. 

“It’s like a little kid in a candy store,” Williams said. “You go out there and, oh, that could be a swan, that’s exactly what I want it to be.” 

She said after working for a while with gourds, they start to talk to you. They tell you what they’re meant to be. And, looking around at the hundreds of newly harvested gourds peeking their necks out of wire bins, you can see the possibilities. 

The Wuertz Farm Gourd Festival is at Pinal County Fairgrounds through Feb. 14.

Annika Cline was born in Germany, raised in California and transplanted to Arizona. She studied at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Cline produces and reports for KJZZ’s original production, The Show, covering stories from all corners of the Valley as well as bringing listeners a slice of their own community in the weekly Sounds of the City series.Cline also volunteers as an art instructor for foster youths and their families.