Southwest impressions on natural forms
by Abby Brill
It was an accident, really. Like so many important turnings in our lives, it wasn’t planned or even looked for. There was this box of gourds, the byproduct of her sister’s husband’s idea to grow something that would provide some needed shade over his shop. Shade was provided, and at the end of the summer they were left with a bonus of some large, woody gourds. “Best not let them go to waste,” she thought.
Shelley Rogers Fletcher, aka the Gourd Lady, is a fourth-generation Arizonan. Her father was a cotton farmer and rancher in west Phoenix who would have found it amusing that his daughters would turn what he considered noxious weeds into fine art. Shelley and her sister Diane were not raised with much exposure to the arts, but their mother and grandmother were very good quilters and seamstresses, so working with their hands came naturally.
When you meet Shelley, you can see right away how bright she is, both in her disposition and in her mind. She’s a numbers person, a quality for which fellow members of the Arts Prescott Cooperative Gallery are deeply grateful. This is not a quality shared by many of the artists in my acquaintance.
Shelley studied elementary education in college, but changed her focus when in her junior year she realized that working with large groups of children was not her happy place. She changed her focus to business and ran a commercial credit bureau until 1992. At about the time she quit her job at the bureau, her sister showed her the box of gourds. They thought they’d have some fun playing around with them.
They took up decorating gourds as a hobby and began to sell their gourds at local craft fairs, but there was as yet no “gourd community” in Arizona, so they were left to their own creative devices. Eventually they took some courses in California, where they also could buy more gourds.
Pretty soon they felt they were good enough to teach workshops with 10-15 participants. These gourd newbies needed supplies for decrating their gourds, so in addition to teaching workshops, Shelley and Diane also began to sell supplies. As their skills and sales improved, they began going to bigger art festivals. Gourds gradually became popular, and the Arizona Gourd Society started an annual festival in 2002 in Casa Grande, where there is also now a gourd farm to supply the many gourd artists.
After years of developing their skills and selling at festivals, her sister wanted to step away from the weekend art shows and Shelley no longer wanted the fuss of the show circuit. She and her husband had recently bought a house in Prescott and began coming up regularly from Laveen. Shelley had been to Prescott many times and was familiar with the Arts Prescott Gallery. A guest show there went well, and she was invited to become a member in 2014.
Shelley buys her gourds in Casa Grande, regularly hauling back a trailer filled with hundreds of them. Because they lay on the ground and dry out over months, the gourd surface is usually covered with a layer of mold and dirt. She wraps them in wet towels for a time to soften the surface, then she has the fun of cleaning them with a metal pot-scrubber.
Once clean and dry, Shelley studies each gourd to decide how to cut it. Using a handheld saber-saw with a very fine blade, she cuts the gourd so it has a lid that will lift off, often in crenelated, irregular designs. Each gourd contains many seeds and a lot of dried fiber, which she removes with a special rotary tool.
She uses many techniques to decorate her gourds, including staining, woodburning, stone inlay and some light carving. One unique and striking detail she adds to some gourds is weaving. Some years ago she learned Tenerife weaving, a circular style done on a spoked loom. Shelley played with this fine craft and eventually created her own unique style, which she and Diane have published a book about. Seeing weaving on her gourds is reminiscent of ancient basketweaving, but hers has a modern, tasteful twist, using colored fibers and beads.
“I was always surrounded and enriched by the Mexican and Native American art, cultures and people. I draw inspiration from those parts of my life as well as so many things I see around me.”
“As a native Arizonan I grew up and have lived around the images of the Southwest my whole life. Coming from a farming family, the colors and fragrances of fields are my happy place, and earth tones are my usual palette. Growing up on the south and west sides of Phoenix I was always surrounded and enriched by the Mexican and Native American art, cultures and people. I draw inspiration from those parts of my life as well as so many things I see around me. I just try to be open to images, elements and ideas I can incorporate into my art. When you’re looking for it, you can find ideas and inspiration almost anywhere.”
When Shelley joined the gallery she saw that she not only had shelf and pedestal surfaces on which to display her work, but wall space as well. She started cutting flatter sections from the gourds and decorating them as wall pieces. Her work now includes both freestanding and wall-mounted pieces, including her ever-popular bears.
Shelley sees herself as an oddball among the gallery members because her background is more accounting than art. We at the gallery are grateful for that accounting background, but more than that, we honor her for the really fine art she produces. Many artists don’t have formal training, but at some point in their lives decided to take something up that became a passion, even an obsession. If you do something enough, you get good at it. Shelley’s work shows serious skill and a unique style. The composition of her pieces, the colors and textures, draw one in, as we see daily in the gallery.
To see Shelley’s work, visit the Arts Prescott Cooperative Gallery at 134 S. Montezuma St., Prescott.
Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.