Handmade: Designer carves niche in world of gourd art

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Chris Pawlik designs and embellishes gourds, turning them into amazing three-dimensional works of art. I met the award-winning gourd artist at this year's Belle Isle Art Fair, where I was immediately drawn to her work.

Gourd artist Chris Pawlik with a collection of her work.

A self-taught gourd artist, the Ira Township resident informed me, during a recent telephone interview, that she worked with gourds many years ago, often painting them for Christmas ornaments, prior to "really (getting) into making old-fashioned snowmen and Santa Clauses." But, later, the urge to create something that could be  less seasonal led her to rekindle her love affair with gourds. They gave her the artistic "flexibility" she craved.

Gourds have been used throughout history by different cultures (Africans, Native Americans, etc.) as objects for creating not only art, but functional pieces, as well, including bowls, water vessels, instruments, and ceremonial masks.  

Being among those who craft gourds into works of art, Pawlik draws from knowledge she acquired through earning two associate degrees -- one in advertising design and another in illustration -- to help when "building the structure for the (gourd) design to be based off of."

She said because gourds are "basically a dried fruit," she likes to use "a lot of natural elements and dried pieces" to further enhance their beauty -- among them, fish vertebrae, pine cones and acorn caps. She also embellishes them with seed beads. "Anything you can use on paper, you can use on a gourd," she said. "Once they're dried, they're like a piece of wood, so they can be painted, carved and cut.

"When they dry, there's a thick layer of skin on the outside, and that's mold, and in some cases it can be very, very difficult to get off," she explained. After washing the gourds to remove any dirt, mold and skin from the shell, Pawlik begins the creative process by sometimes drawing a design to be carved and burned into the surface.

Then, wearing a full-faced shield, she does any necessary cutting and carving outdoors, inside a pop-up tent on her driveway. There, she also removes the seeds and debris from inside the gourd.

Then, once all the dirty work -- if you will -- is done, that's when the fun begins. She then transforms the gourds with color into beautifully crafted works of art in a bedroom inside her home that's been turned into a "working studio" for doing the finishing steps -- painting and applying a polyurethane sealer.

Pawlik said she enjoys working with gourds because they offer a wide range of creative possibilities. "I always go back to my dad who was a carpenter," she said. "He built houses in Detroit, and came from a very long line of carpenters. He was always building something you lived in. He said, 'When I carved a piece of wood, I couldn't get past the idea that it needed to be a structure.' I see in gourds what he saw in wood." He taught me about power tools and working with wood. When he tried to show me the wood houses, I could never see the finished piece in wood, but when I work on gourds I can see what the finished piece is going to be."

Many of Pawlik's finished works, include ornaments, bowls, lamps, seasonal decorations, drums, dolls, and hinged treasure boxes. She "primarily" sells them at art and craft shows. "Plus," she said, "I get into the local holiday markets, like the BBAC (Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center). I will do it this year, as well. I usually create a bunch of ornaments for them each year." 

Her gourds range from $5 to $1,500 each. She said the latter would be an Indian-style piece, called a Kachina. "It has a lot of stone and bead inlay, and it's a very elaborate piece. (But) the one piece that took the longest to work on took six months. It's the Aztec calendar.  

"Working with gourds over the last few years has been my therapy and escape," added the full-time quality assurance analyst. And, her husband, Joe, has been there right by her side. "I couldn't have done what' I've done over the past 30 years without him -- from artwork to life in general." The two will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in October. 

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Chris Pawlik at www.northshoremi.com or chris@northshoremi.com.