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Artist of the Month - July 2003

From Seed to Art: The Gourd Art of Bob Ridges
by Janet Lowe

They call themselves “gourd heads.” They are people — not from another planet, but from our very own – who like to grow gourds. They speak of these gourds as if they are children, nurturing them from the time they are tiny plants until they appear on the vine and grow like a baby in the womb. You can actually watch them develop – form necks and heads, waistlines and hips. The short story is this: growing gourds makes gourd heads happy. We have one in Moab – a gourd head, that is. His name is Bob Ridges.

Ridges isn’t content simply growing gourds, however. Once he picks these beautiful treasures off the vine after the first frost, he hangs them in “The Blue Goose,” his drying shed. Here they stay for many months forming colorful explosions of mold on their skin and subtly, and ever so slowly, drying, until one day seeds rattle inside them and they are ready to create art.

This is where it gets really interesting, especially when it comes to the art of Bob Ridges. Undoubtedly one of the most talented and creative gourd artists in the West, Ridges lets each gourd speak to him. He holds it, studies it, watches it, waiting for the inspiration to come which will tell him whether this particular gourd wants to be a musical instrument, a pot, a rattle, a rain stick, a jewelry box, a planter….or maybe something he’s never created before.

“I never start on a gourd until I get an inspiration,” Ridges said, standing in his drying shed with gourds of every conceivable size and shape hanging around his head.

“And I do confess, each one is like a child. Each is individually special to me. I grow them, I clean them and give them a lot of TLC,” said Ridges.

He took up the art of growing gourds about five years ago. “I’ve always liked to grow things and gourds are so fascinating,” he said. “I decided I wanted to make some bird houses, so I grew some gourds, dried them, and started cutting holes and designing bird houses, but the birds didn’t like them. So, I changed the houses to feeders and that was it. I was hooked on creating things out of gourds.”

Walking through his studio there are gourds in every stage of creation. Some are still wearing their moldy skin. Others are stripped clean, shiny and smooth as… well…smooth as a baby’s bottom. Some have been cut, but are not yet graced with Ridges’ exquisite wood-burned patterns. Others have been transformed into musical instruments or lidded pots.

One instrument is an African mbira or what we call a “thumb piano” in America. He makes flutes, rattles, drums and has even tried his hand at a ukulele. He never paints his gourds, rather uses wood burning tools to engrave intricate patterns. One of his personal favorites is a gourd graced with the image of a hummingbird. Others replicate famous rock art panels that are seen around the region including the Great Gallery from Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

There is even melody in the growing and drying of gourds. The seeds are planted after the first frost in the spring and harvested before the first frost in the fall. They are transferred to the drying shed until approximately March. There is plenty of company in the shed. Each year Ridges grows approximately 200-250 gourds each year.

“I have bags of gourds from five years ago that I haven’t worked with. The inspiration hasn’t come and they are too beautiful to make any mistakes,” he says laughing about his tenderness toward the gourds.

Gourds come in more shapes than is imaginable. Just a few of the varieties in various stages of creation in Ridges’ studio are: Apple gourds, snake gourds, Chinese bottles, basketball gourds, long handled dippers, bird house gourds, wine jugs, bushel gourds and canteen gourds. There are many more. On top of the dozens of existing varieties, gourds are known to cross pollinate and create combinations of any of the varieties.
“Many more serious growers won’t allow for cross-pollination,” said Ridges, “but I like it. It’s fun to see what shows up on the vine!”

Some of the gourds that make an appearance on his vines are very large. “I think the largest gourd I’ve ever grown is 62 lbs. The smallest is a variety that simply doesn’t get much bigger than about two inches,” explains Ridges.

Ridges also explains that the gourd is believed to be the first cultivated plant in civilization. It is believed to date back to 9000 B.C. in Egypt. It is estimated that it first made its appearance in America in approximately 1000 B.C. It is unknown how it came to arrive in America, but there is documentation that a gourd once traveled by sea for 347 days and still had viable seeds, so almost anything is possible when it comes to gourds.

For those interested in growing gourds you should know that they need considerable water. There are also plenty of other folks around Moab and Castle Valley who lovingly call each other “gourd heads.” Each year there is a Gourd Festival in Castle Valley. For 2003 it is scheduled for October 25 at the Castle Valley Fire Station.

You can see some of Bob Ridges finished gourd art at Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery at 70 N. Main Street in Moab.

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