Friday, January 3, 2014

A BIT OF GOURDING

Yesterday when I went into Paul Schexnayder's A&E art gallery to pick up several paintings that will be included in a book entitled Porch Posts that I and Janet Faulk-Gonzales have written, I discovered a new brochure about the Louisiana Gourd Society lying on the checkout counter. Now, I'm a fan of gourds, as my father always raised a crop of them that he dried and placed on the back screen porch because my mother loved to see them hanging there. Mother was an artist, but I don't think she ever considered painting or decorating them like many contemporary artists do. On my travels last year to Rugby, Tennessee and Berea, Kentucky, I saw many painted gourds and admired the colorful artwork, but I left them hanging as I found that they were a bit pricey for my pocketbook.

The Louisiana Gourd Society, whose mission is to educate, promote, and encourage the growing, culture, use, history, and/or craftsmanship of gourds, made its debut at the Acadiana Gourd Festival in Jennings, Louisiana three years ago. The festival featured two gourds decorated with beautiful paintings—one of a Blue Heron and the other of a traveling gourd dedicated to Louisiana's Threatened and Endangered Wildlife.

The first annual Louisiana Gourd Show, "Gourding on the Bayou," was held last April in Haynesville, Louisiana, and this year it will be held in "The Berry," aka New Iberia, Louisiana. An auction and a raffle for the Louisiana Gourd Festival Traveling Gourd entitled "Louisiana Native Wildflowers" will be featured.

My discovery of the gourd brochure brought to mind the gourds I saw at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana when I was researching Their Adventurous Will: Profiles of MemorableLouisiana Women, a book I wrote back in the 80's. A long line of gourds extended across the front of African House, a building representing Congo architecture on the grounds of Melrose. Later, I found much ado about gourds written by Francois Mignon who lived and wrote at Melrose Plantation for over thirty years. Mignon compiled the columns entitled "Cane River Memo" (later changed to "Plantation Memo") that he wrote for the Natchitoches Times, The Alexandria Town Talk, Opelousas Daily World, and Shreveport Times and published them in his book, Plantation Memo.

Mignon published a lengthy column tracing the history of gourds to Aztec, Mayan, and Inca empires of Central and South America, reporting that these people used them for dippers, jars, even as aids to folk music performances. He said that it was fun raising gourds in the Spring, but it was a job curing them in the Fall, adding that "any dolt can toss a gourd seed into the ground with fair prospects of it bringing forth a vine and a bumper crop," but at harvest time it was a job to divest them of excess moisture. To avoid decomposition of the gourds, he advised the grower to allow the gourds to remain on the vine until they ripened and fell, then suspend them from a line until the water (3/4's of a gourd!) within them evaporated. Mignon reported that in a few weeks the gourds would become discolored, but he usually removed the outside layer of them with a knife, then washed the gourds in soapy water, dried them with a cloth, and hung them back on the line to dehydrate.

A few weeks later, Mignon would take the gourds down and paint them with a thin coat of oil. His gourds would eventually develop colors ranging from deep russet to shades of purple, and he recommended using them to decorate porches, to provide houses for wrens, to create dolls, even to provide containers in which to store eggs. He concluded his remarks about gourds with the comment: "I am the happier when my calendar reminds me it's time for gourd harvest."


And, in case you think I've gone off my gourd about this subject, I refer you to Mignon's Plantation Memo, published by Claitor's in 1981. Francois Mignon was another Louisiana writer who may be unsung in the annals of Louisiana literature, but I admire his writing and regard it as a breath of fresh air. He wove a rich tapestry about life in Cane River country during the three decades he lived on Melrose Plantation.
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