Woman makes art on nature's canvas

Thursday, August 23, 2007
Painted and carved, this patriotic gourd is one of Patty Mueller's favorites

Gourds are Patty Mueller's canvas. They're also components of sculpture that enhance the art forms she makes for her family and friends and neighbors at Saxony Village, where she lives.

She describes her studio as small, but that doesn't include the area beyond the studio door where many examples of her work are stationed.

Gourds -- the hollow, dried shell of a fruit in the Cucurbitaceae family of plants -- have multiple uses. They can be birdfeeders, birdhouses, nest boxes and baskets. They also can be made into bowls, bottles, musical instruments and -- as Mueller sees them -- objects of art. The original shape of clay pottery is thought to have been modeled after the shape of certain gourd varieties.

"The Gourd Lady," Mueller's nickname at Saxony Village has been earned not only by the annual gourd programs she presents, but by the personal gifts she bestows at special occasions: painted gourds painstakingly created for each receiver. "About three-fourths of the people that live here have gourds," she said.

No longer painting on gourds for profit, Mueller said she does it "for the glory of God. It's more fun this way. There are no commitments."

Patty Mueller of Cape Girardeau looked at a gourd she selected from the family farm that will later become a unique creation. Images she paints on the organic forms often stem from their texture or mottled color. (Chris Pagano ~ cpagano@semissourian.com)

Mueller no longer has the space she once had in her house, so when it's time to do a show, she borrows some of the gourds she's painted for family and friends to make presentations. "Once a year is often enough," she said. "In that time people have passed and its time for the new ones to know about gourds."

Mueller wears a small jewelry gourd around her neck. It's another indication of just how much gourds are a part of her life. She said she never liked doing canvases, finding the challenge of painting on three-dimensional gourds or sawblades more motivating. The varying, organic forms -- canteen, egg, apple, curly, short dippers and kettle- and bottle-shaped -- are sometimes combined for a sculpture effect.

Mueller said she likes working with broken gourds. Broken pieces are used to define characteristics that transform the finished piece into dynamic art. For instance, Mueller used parts from four gourds to create an elephant head. A large, rounded shape formed the head, the ears were created from pieces of other gourds and the tusks and stand were made from curly shaped gourds.

Mueller said she's been an artist most of her life and that at age 12 she knew she could draw. "We didn't have art classes in St. Louis. Not in the elementary schools."

In 1945 she took drawing lessons at St. Louis Art Museum. "They were free. Every Saturday. We drew from the statues. We learned about depth and color -- not to be the same as somebody else," she said. "You need to use what's in your brain."

Mueller determines what each gourd will be by bringing out the images she already sees in them. From the natural pattern on a gourd's surface Mueller points out: "Here's a ghostie, a horse, an owl." Although not apparent at first, with a little imagination, the shapes Mueller sees become clear. "Everybody sees something different," she said.

Her favorites include a patriotic gourd that is displayed on holidays at Saxony Village and a southwestern scene she made for her daughter. The patriotic gourd was created by painting and carving the montage of lady liberty with a symbol of freedom perched on her hand. The image incorporates the American flag intertwined with an eagle head.

Her granddaughter, Bethany Matzke, co-owner of Gordgeous Farms in Bradenton, Fla., mails gourds to her grandmother periodically. Matzke said her grandmother is the gourd painter. The subsequent generation has taken a different path -- gourd basketry. Matzke teaches others how to incorporate organic material and dyes to create gourd baskets.

Mueller supplements her gourd reserve by visiting the Mueller Greenhouse in Bertrand, Mo., owned by her son, Mike. Selecting gourds from a bin about once a month is part of the preparation process for Mueller. This is followed by cleaning and soaking the gourds in hot, soapy water and using a copper scouring pad to scrape off the mold and dirt. She's learned that using a mask and gloves helps prevent respiratory problems.

"Gourds are poisonous," she said. "I learned it a year ago when my chest tightened up after cleaning them."

For some pieces, cutting the gourd is required for. For those gourds, Mueller gets help. She uses an awl to punch holes, acrylic paint and a fluted knife for carving. Some of the interesting pieces Mueller has created include owls, Christmas bulbs, penguins and a manger scene complete with gourd figurines.

cpagano@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension. 133

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