September 8, 2012 6:47:02 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Thank goodness Missy Miles' husband, Tommy, didn't opt for red roses and chocolates when Valentine's Day rolled around in 2005. Otherwise, the rest of us would be missing out on saucer-eyed fish swimming in whimsy, dancing terrapins, lace-like carvings, and the occasional political statement or send-up on car phobias.
Yes, Missy Miles' passion for gourd art all began with an act of love.
"I discovered gourds when my husband gifted me a truckload of them for Valentine's. I loved their texture, colors and variety of shapes. He could not have presented me with a more wonderful present," said Miles, her eyes twinkling, as they often do when she talks about the creative world she occupies.
It wasn't long before the Guin, Ala., artist began to envision forms, characters and stories within the gourd's woody surfaces, waiting to be revealed. Through carving, painting, sculpting, burning, dyeing and polishing, she brought them out.
Since its ancient beginnings among Native American nations such as the Navajo and Hopi, and the peoples of Africa, Asia and Peru, gourd crafting has evolved from rudimentary hand-carving to high-speed rotary tools and electric wood burners that can be used to create almost any design. But an artist's inspiration is at the heart of it all.
For Miles, that inspiration is inherent in everyday life, in seemingly small incidents as well as life-altering events.
Her father's glaucoma moved her to create her first funky fish, titled "Goldie." There are now nine in the series. All have large, luminous eyes.
"It's a scary time when you're losing your vision, especially so quickly, so I wanted to create something colorful and fun so it would lift his spirits," smiled Miles, whose studio in Hamilton, Ala., is very close to her parents' home.
Another fish, "Mr. Opt," was a gift to her dad's first eye doctor. Like some of the others, it was made from a pear gourd, cut in half, with segments of other gourds used for eyes and fanciful fins. Fine detail work creates scales, and inspired painting infuses each fish with life and engaging character.
Other animals recurring in Miles' world of gourds include turtles, cats and birds.
An A&E network TV show on "weird and compulsive behavior" is behind one of the artist's comically eye-catching pieces.
"There was gentleman on the show who was scared of El Caminos; when he saw one he would have to run down the street," Miles explained, wearing a bemused expression. "I found it so odd, and I couldn't get it out of my head until I did that piece in 2011."
In "Is It a Car or Is It a Truck?" a panicked three-dimensional face made with segments of pear, martin and bottleneck gourds pops from a painted two-dimensional canvas filled with the dreaded hybrid vehicles. The piece greeted visitors to the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus in August, when the Columbus Arts Council hosted a show by the Gordo, Ala., Art Alliance, of which Miles is a member.
Tornadoes that tore through Mississippi and Alabama in April 2011 evoked Miles' thoughtful "The Big Wind." Intricate open carving covers a large bushel gourd, inspired by the unifying sense of community that emerged in the aftermath. An accent light inside the gourd, when lit, reveals an abstract cross.
"I drew the bands of wind, like rows of tornadoes, on the gourd first, so I had guidelines, but the other carving work more or less just happened as I went," said Miles. "It symbolizes how everyone came together to fix what the tornadoes had done."
The gourd artisan does much of her work with drills, a band saw and a palm-held jigsaw. An array of small dental-style sanders are used for some detail work. Dyes and paints add even more dimension. Many of her pieces are intensely time-consuming.
"Sometimes it can take six hours just to clean the goodies out of the gourd before you can ever start carving," she explained. But gourds have taught her to appreciate the meaningful time.
"I've really grown into being more patient; I'm learning," she smiled.
At the heart of things
As a woman grateful to have been able to combine her love of family, love of art and love of nature in a successful full-time artistic career, Miles credited the support she's found as part of the Gordo Art Alliance community. She also praised the Alabama Gourd Society and American Gourd Society, which set the bar high with its established categories and standards for gourd craft judging at recognized events.
She's also thankful for her days as a school girl, taking art.
"I can remember how art moved me in grade school and the enjoyment I had with friends as we designed spirograph cards and drew prehistoric creatures," she shared. "I'm fortunate to be from a generation where art was in the regular curriculum, not an elective. Art to me is more than an aesthetic additive, it's a way of thought."
Miles' creativity isn't limited to gourds, of course. Painting public murals is another outlet. She's done several in north Alabama, and is currently painting one in Guin. Images of her work can be seen on a blog, linked through her website at missymiles.com. Her Organic Vessels work can also be followed on Facebook.
But, as her most recent homegrown crop of gourds continues to develop in the field, she's ever watchful for that next inspiring form or contour.
"Each of my gourds touches my heart," she said. "I can't wait to see where the next one takes me."
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.