Gourds speak to Wendy McLaughlin ’79. Perhaps not literally, but the former advertising executive turned professional carver is definitely something of a gourd whisperer, using each specimen’s unique qualities as inspiration. “Gourding is fabulous,” she says. “You never do the same things two days in a row. No two gourds are alike.”
Artists have been carving gourds for at least 4,000 years in Peru; McLaughlin began carving 11 years ago in Minneapolis, her home for many years. An avid gardener, she planted some gourd seeds alongside a winding path at the back of her property. Thenceforth the trail, overhung with gourd vines hanging from trees, was known as Gourd Alley, and the bountiful harvest inspired McLaughlin to start carving. The name stuck: McLaughlin, now a professional gourd artist who splits her time between Florida’s Sanibel Island and Sandwich, Massachusetts, calls her business GourdAlley.
McLaughlin describes the medium as similar to soft wood, and her creations fall into roughly two categories. Larger specimens are crafted into bowls or ornamental containers. Miniature gourds become “gourdikins”: rotund little people, whimsically painted and accessorized, that are suggested by the gourds’ bulbous shapes.
The creative impulse came naturally to McLaughlin. Torn between art and business as a teen, she originally enrolled at Skidmore College but transferred to Babson. Focusing her studies on business suited McLaughlin. But, she adds, “I have a creative side that can’t be repressed.”
McLaughlin also has a strong stomach, which comes in handy for carving gourds. She places her fresh gourds in storage for a year to dry; when they emerge, they are moldy and malodorous. A dried gourd must then be bleached and scrubbed cleaned—“to within an inch of its life,” says McLaughlin—before it can be carved. “Carving gourds is not for sissies,” she notes. “You must wear a mask, and you must love power tools.”
Carving gourds went from avocation to vocation for McLaughlin when she “retired somewhat” a few years back. She has sold her work at craft shows but is now happy to be part of a nearby artists’ retail co-op.
The irrepressibly creative McLaughlin also paints furniture, but gourds are her passion. “I have a lot of variety in my work,” she says. “It’s not just a flat canvas. It’s three-dimensional, and it’s based in nature. The wonderful thing about working in gourds is that you can carve them, you can cut them, you can stain them. I’m not locked into anything. That’s what makes it fun.”