Carving into history: Patterns, light on ancient medium

Ron Poole gourds
St. George artist Ron Poole who creates gourd art. St. George, Utah | Photo by Nick Adams / Etched Magazine; St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Ron Poole is a St. George artist working in an ancient medium: gourds.

The bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, is thought to be the first plant domesticated by people. Examples have been found in archaeological sites from around the world (Africa, Asia and the Americas) dating back as far as 13,000 B.C.

Gourds could be used as food or as utilitarian objects. Hollowed and dried, the shell hardens, making a lightweight vessel ready for many uses. Gourds as water containers are found in the creation myths of cultures from arid regions. Nearly every culture has a musical instrument made from a gourd – flutes, drums, stringed instruments.

The Chinese developed a method of molding gourds into preferred shapes, and used them to hold herbs and medicines and as cages for pet crickets. When Europeans first arrived in South America, they found gourds in use as birdhouses to attract species of birds that would aid in agricultural pest control.

At some point, people began decorating gourds by molding, painting, burning designs, etching designs, carving and making holes, or all of the above. It was on a 2012 trip with his father to the Kalamazoo Living History Show in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that Poole first encountered gourd art. The yearly event is a showcase for people involved in pre-20th century arts and crafts.

Gourd lamps created by Ron Poole, a St. George artist. Undated | Photo courtesy of Nick Adams, St. George News
Gourd lamps created by Ron Poole, a St. George artist. Undated | Photo by Nick Adams / Etched Magazine; St. George News

Poole, with a master’s degree in psychology, worked as a therapist for eight years before getting a job at a community mental health center for youth. It was a rewarding job, but also intensive and emotionally-draining. After nearly four years, he was burned out.

“I just spent so much time listening to people and absorbing their problems that I was done. I wanted to not have people talk to me. I wanted to create something that impacted people that was a part of me that didn’t come from words — words to me were a manipulation. I just wanted an honest expression of something that was inside of me that I could show to people and not have to talk about.”

Poole had always been around wood carvers.

“My grandfather was a woodcarver. He would make kachina dolls and figures — it was sort of his passion — growing up I saw him doing that. My dad would carve. He went to school to be a commercial artist, but didn’t pursue it. Carving in wood was always something that was there, so I decided to pick it up.”

With an interest in Native American spirituality, Poole began making drum beaters out of wood. When he was accepted into an art show, he was looking for other things to fill out his portfolio and encountered a gourd artist making fine art pieces at the Kalamazoo show. He attended a presentation by the artist and became inspired with gourd art.

“Something clicked,” Poole said. “I liked working with that. For one thing, it’s completely renewable, so you’re not using things that are impacting nature. It’s not like wood where you’re chopping down the tree and killing the tree. It’s a plant, it adds to nature, and you take that and turn it into something that’s useable.”

Further exploration of gourd art led to carving them as lamps. Poole finds a greater depth to the gourds as art pieces this way. He said:

With gourd lamp, you have the sculpture with the light off, that’s one piece of art. When you turn it on, it changes the look of it. It becomes alive, and if you carve it to a certain depth this red glow comes through. And then there is the art of the impression the light leaves on the walls, on the ceiling and on the people around it. It has almost a psychological effect.

I think it almost alters the way your brain functions. The lighting that we have most of the time is very harsh – it’s either on or it’s off and there’s no in-between. And what I like about my lamps, is that in between state, kind of reminiscent of going in to your unconscious mind. Some of the people who have my lamps leave them on all night, it helps them sleep and transition from daylight to dark. For me it’s really interesting to be able to give that to people.

Written by Nick Adams

This feature was first published in Etched Magazine and is republished here with permission.


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