Dixie Guldner's great gourd ideas grow gradually. She sits a dirty gourd on her living room table and gets used to it. She walks by it from time to time during her travels through the house. She asks herself, what does that gourd want to be?
"It's not like an empty canvas where you start from nothing," Guldner said.
Some of the finished, painted gourds feature carvings, others flaunt feathers or lace, among other accoutrements.
Guldner is a retired marriage therapist, and before that she worked as a concert organist. During college, she majored in organ and minored in harp.
The art of gourds is a continuation of her creative evolution, Guldner says.
Each art, even therapy, has its rules. Music has keys to be respected and tempos to keep. Therapy has categories to apply and precedents to keep. But once one understands the rules, one can break them.
The same is true with art.
"Generally, nature does not produce perfection," Guldner writes in the informational sheet she gives her patrons.
Gourds are long and short, thick and thin, smooth and rough.
"This is not a flaw in the gourd, but rather how nature produced it."
The artist, who begins with a blank canvas, must stare the canvas down and conquer it with her imagination. Gourd artists take what the gourd gives them and expound on its variables.
"It is up to the gourd artist to examine each gourd to determine what design will best bring out the qualities of the unique shape and coloration of the gourd," Guldner writes. Kind of like music -- FürElise played by a concert pianist is inherently more pleasing, though arguably not as joyful, as when it comes from a beginning piano player. The notes are the same, though the technique is variably mastered. The true aficionado moves between technique, between the rules, flavoring the fundamentals, without fundamentally altering them, with individual flair.
The rules are firm; the art is found in between.
To prepare a gourd, an artist first washes it with warm water, and then scrubs it clean with a copper scratch pad. The gourd's inside is scraped clean by hand or with a power tool.
Guldner pencils on the designs she wants. Sometimes they work, and Guldner wood burns them into permanency. Other times the designs don't work, and she erases them.
She applies leather dye, sometimes one color, other times multiple colors. Sealer protects the finished product, and if Guldner's artistic plan includes other materials like feathers, those are applied after the sealer.
Gourds, which are members of the squash family, have been in existence for thousands of years. In ancient times, they were often used to carry water or hold food.
People are generally advised to avoid filling today's gourds, finished as they are, with water. Decorative gourds weigh little -- they seem easily crushable.
Guldner says people like to purchase gourds as gifts for far-away friends or family members because they are so light and cost so little to mail.
The art of gourds, Guldner says, is one of the more quickly growing. Three gourd artists live in Payson alone; and a gourd show outside Phoenix draws between 200 and 300 gourd artists, all of whom must be accepted into the show.
Guldner says she likes art's intense freedom. "I like the fact that I can do anything I choose to do."
Especially now, since Guldner is retired and does not rely on selling gourds to make a living.
"I can make as many gourds or as few gourds as I want to."
Still, Guldner says her discipline elicits productivity. Each day, she spends four hours on art in some way -- either actually painting or preparing, or simply playing piano or reading to stir the brain.
In the art of gourds, Guldner knows the guidelines, but great ideas still need time to grow.