Serena Kovalosky, Gourd Artist: Reflections on Art and the World Around Her
As we ascend the stairs to her second story studio, Serena Kovalosky points out the artwork on the wall. The works of her friends—photographs, painting, pen and ink drawings—provide inspiration as she walks up to her workspace.
I’ve been invited to her small studio in Whitehall to discuss Serena’s upcoming exhibit, Agriculture to Art, at the Cambridge Farmer’s Market. Over the course of our conversation, Serena shares the essential elements of her creative process. She also talks about the role of art and artists in modern times and theorizes about the allure the Adirondacks has for artistic souls.
Serena’s exhibit and presentation on August 1st will illustrate her gourd’s long journey from seed to finished product. Using pieces in various stages of production, she gives me a preview. Her larger gourds, which are grown in southern California (she grows the smaller ones herself), have a growing season of nine months. Then they have to dry for up to nine months before she can begin carving. As they dry, mold grows on the surface of the gourds. Even after the gourds have been thoroughly cleaned, the mold’s patterns of discoloration remain. Often using these discolorations as a rough guide, Serena begins to sand, carve, wood burn, paint and gild the gourds into works of art. Serena emphasizes that it takes time to bring forth something completely new and admits that she rarely begins with a plan for a gourd; she just begins working and inspiration comes as the piece takes shape. This process, which she describes as completely “organic”, can last two to three months for each piece. In all, it usually takes two years to get a larger piece from seed to gallery.
When I ask about her artistic training, Serena tells me that she never studied art at school. As an undergraduate studying languages at Potsdam, art was always something she did “on the side” rather than in class. After school she worked for various travel companies and lived in Boston and Montreal, as well as traveled all over the world. After almost two decades of this nomadic life, a friend finally exposed her to Mexican gourd art. As she describes the art form, “They’re lacquered gourds. They put layers and layers of lacquer on the gourd and it’s all one color, say red. The last layer is a different color, maybe black, and then they carve it.” The gourds immediately fascinated her and she went to the local library and found a book on gourd crafting. From there, she began creating gourd art from her own small gourds.
“I quit a perfectly good day job to be a gourd artist. Who does that?!” she asks with a laugh.
Serena moved to a shared studio in Montreal, where she gained her “practical education.” She learned about the creative process from other, established artists. Since then, though she has experimented with other art forms—she’s done face and hand casts of people from twenty different countries; she’s tried to find a way to fire white Whitehall clay without making it crack—she invariably returns to her original materials. “You have to find a medium you resonate with physically,” she tells me. For her, it’s gourds.
As her work has evolved, so have her ambitions. When a gilded papier-mâché bowl in a book interested her, she traveled to England to learn the technique. In London, she participated in a gilding workshop. “In Europe, most of the gilding is frames,” she tells me. “So everyone comes to class with frames and I come with a gourd. The instructor looked at me and was like, ‘I love you!’” In London, Serena learned water gilding, in which gold leaf is floated on top of water, and adhesive gilding, in which an adhesive and then the leaf is brushed onto the desired area of the piece. Now gilding has become an integral part of many of Serena’s pieces.
Working with gourds, Serena considers herself an artist working in a medium traditionally relegated to the realm of “craft.” As such, she feels that her creative process is both “bringing nobility to craft” and opening “high art” to a wider audience. “You don’t need an education in art to connect with my work,” she says.
On a practical level, Serena encourages new customers by offering work at a wide range of prices. “I make work that isn’t expensive so they don’t have to start with a $500 piece,” she says. It’s her way of “easing people into art appreciation,” something she feels can be intimidating to many. To this end, Serena also co-founded Washington County Open Studios, an event that occurs once every two years. The event runs for a weekend and welcomes visitors into local artists’ studios to view their work in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. The idea of the event is to both generate sales and increase appreciation for art in the area. “There are a lot of really good professional artists here that people should be paying attention to,” Serena says.
In 2009, the event showcased a dozen artists and in 2011 will include approximately 15, all located in Washington County. “There are a lot of artists here,” says Serena, “but you’d never know it if you just drove through. Artists come independent of one another but all end up here.”
“What draws us here?” she muses. “I think there’s just this creative energy.”
Serena also discusses the broader place of artists in modern society. As she sees it, “When artists were part of a tribe, they had well-defined roles. They made art for a particular reason, like, say, fertility vases. Now there’s a disconnect between artists and other people.” She believes that closing this gap has to start with the artists. Now that art isn’t always seen as a necessity, “artists have to find a way to get their vision and values out there” so people understand art’s importance.
This importance is something she cannot overstate. “It’s not something you choose to do, you have to do it,” she says of creating art. “If I don’t, it feels like I’ll explode and it’s not good for my psyche…or for the people around me if I don’t create,” she laughs.
Besides working on her gourd art, Serena is currently living the life of a semi-nomadic blogger. She travels in search of other artists and eclectic places, mostly in rural America. So far she’s been very successful at finding “people you’d never know were there.” She even has the white peacock feathers from a pony-pulling farm in Gaysville, VT to prove it. She’s hoping to draw on these travel experiences to author a book on cultural tourism in rural America.
Ideally she’d like to expand the concept to an examination of what it’s like to live as an artist internationally. She wonders, “Are artists able to create in Afghanistan right now?” and adds, “I think it’s hard here; imagine living as a woman artist in Afghanistan.” Serena envisions a project that ultimately allows people to see each other’s countries through the eyes of artists. “Through positive art,” she specifies, “art that shows how they see the world.”
To see how Serena views the world through her unique artist’s eyes, visit her at the Cambridge Farmer’s Market on August 1st and visit her blog at www.serenakovalosky.blogspot.com
–Sarah Cramer is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.
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