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Artist of the Month - April 2006

Time and Wages
By Annabelle Numaguchi

The value of art weighs on many factors; its beauty, its authorship, and its medium are a few that viewers quickly assess when considering the worth of a piece.

One of the most interesting aspects of art is its durability - will it stand the test of time? And if it doesn’t, does that temporality sacrifice some of the value of the work?

For investors, there’s no question that durability matters. After all, how can a piece of art increase in value while it decomposes. On the other hand, certain artists view the ephemerality of their art as a way of giving appropriate importance to the very act of creating - consider Navajo sand paintings, which are left to blow away after they are completed.

When art withstands the ravages of time, do we value it primarily for its aesthetics or its history? Take the Chauvet cave paintings, the oldest known “museum.” They are priceless, but would we sell them, or part with them, if they were portable?

Time is after all a big component in considering art, and therefore art created in certain media (like oils, marble, photography, etc.) tends to be more prized and taken more seriously.

So, I hope you will forgive me when I shamefully admit my lack of enthusiasm when I was asked to interview Michael A. Wages, who creates art out of gourds. I thought I was being asked to contemplate that fine line between art and craft.

How wrong I was.

Wages’ work is finely detailed, beautifully composed and unique. It also bridges modern creation with the artwork and history of the tribes who peopled this very area centuries ago.

For those of you reading this article and who have probably already perused the attached photographs of Wages’ work, it may be difficult to imagine my preconceptions when I heard “gourds,” and imagined cute birdhouses.

Looking at these gracefully decorated pieces evokes the aesthetics and storytelling capacity of ancient Anasazi pottery. In fact, Wages has created an optical illusion with his gourds that tricks the eye into believing that these containers are at times made of fired clay rather than dried vegetables.

This illusion is attributed to several interesting factors. The first is the surprising symmetry of the actual gourds.

One could say that these near-perfect proportions are in thanks to nature, not Wages. However, as anyone who is familiar with gourds knows, they tend to look lopsided, due in part to the listing top. Wages admits that the first time he saw a gourd, he blurted out, “What the hell is that?!? It’s ugly!”

That was four years ago when he was recovering from a severe foot injury and was in need of a sit-down sort of activity. A native of Houston and the son of a creative family, Wages had experience in various media, none of which grabbed his imagination.

Despite his unfortunate first impression, he looked at the gourd long enough to discover its possibilities, and has been creating beauty and symmetry ever since. The gourd has a Doberman-like lock on Wages and won’t let go.

Wages is adept at removing the ungainly parts and retaining only the part that looks like it was flung off a potter’s wheel in concentric circles, including the finely shaped and smoothed rim.

And, if nature does not accommodate Wages, he takes matters into his own hands. Rather than waiting for nature to produce the proper looking specimen, Wages is capable of crafting the right shape out of several gourds.

His latest piece, inspired by a pot dating around 1100 from a private collection, is truly a trompe l’oeuil. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Wages cannibalized parts from three separate gourds in order to create one with the roundness, raised neck and lip he desired. Through a complicated technique he’s not ready to divulge, he imbues the black and white gourd with a patina that resembles that of ancient pottery.

He creates an illusion in which the gourd takes on the appearance of clay or stone. In addition to his primary tool, the wood-burner, he also uses leather dyes, acrylic paint, urethane and other “secret stuff” to color and polish the designs. In certain pieces, the burnished black shapes have the luster of onyx.
He also works with the natural mottling of the gourd which absorbs color differently, creating an intriguing pattern that much resembles marble.

The most intriguing aspect of gourd-burning for Wages is not the painting, polishing or tricking the viewer’s eye into thinking the gourd is made out of a different substance. It is the design.

Fascinated by Anasazi and Pueblo art, Wages has linked himself to the past by finding inspiration in their designs and carrying on many of their traditions. He admits that “I’m drawn to more primitive ways of producing this art.”

And why not? This is art that has survived for a millenium.

Although he improvises his designs as he passes the wood-burner over the gourd, he gives credit to the indigenous artists for the running motifs he borrows from their pottery.

In the gourd whose black design depicts the recognizable buttes of Castle Valley (he rarely titles his pieces, other than using a serial number to indicate the date of completion), two Hopi birds complete the design. Wages believes that this stylized representation is actually the macaw, a type of parrot brought up from South America and highly prized by the Anasazi. Wages believes his best pieces incorporate this symbol.

Although he is highly influenced by Native American pottery, Wages mostly creates spontaneously. He picks up a gourd and just starts running a line and lets the design flow out of him. Much like the ancient potters, he allows the emerging design to tell a story, often one symbolic of a personal experience.

In “Three Storms” (one of the few gourds that has a name), Wages memorializes a series of dry summer storms when the desert is bristling with electricity. The obsidian shapes represent the thunder and a jagged bolt of lightning. The arcs symbolize the sunset, the time when Wages witnessed these natural theatrics.

Looking at this piece helps the viewer understand the three-dimensional qualities of this art, which is difficult to capture in a photo. Wages states that the gourds are intended to be viewed aerially, yet the design changes as the gourd is turned on its infinite axis.

The shape of the gourd also influences the design. Even though the designs are composed almost entirely of straight lines, the curvature of the canvas makes many of them appear rounded.
Because of this idiosyncrasy of his medium, Wages enjoys reproducing the same design on gourds of different shapes, exploring the varying results.

Wages designed his own representation of the Hopi story of creation in a bold geometric pattern using rich hues of black, red and beige onto a wide gourd that looks like the top and bottom have been flattened towards each other.

The mouth of the vessel and the square design around it symbolize the hole out of which the first people emerged and the four directions towards which the new inhabitants of the earth migrated. The ornate arrow-like shapes on the sides of the pot represent the cardinal points. The North and South share the same design, whereas the East and West display unique shapes, symbolizing their importance because of the sun’s trajectory.

He reproduced the same design on an elongated gourd with a raised lip. Although the design is recognizable, the result is quite different than the original.

Wages’ designs are striking, well-balanced and detailed, oeuvres worth collecting. Which raises the question of durability once again. The designs are timeless, but the medium is organic. Does it last?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” according to Wages and collectors of his art.

Gourd-carving has an illustrious tradition, starting when man began decorating his tools. Wages believes that the gourd was probably one of the first utensils man used, and that because of their biodegradability, there are not many left.

However, if these vessels are kept indoors, he claims that they will last indefinitely. He has collectors who are willing to bank on this assurance. Not surprising, considering how masterfully Wages bridges beauty and history together through his gourd art.

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