Published in The Robesonian Newspaper, July, 2010

Giving Gourds A New Look

PEMBROKE — Walking into Joan Blackwell’s studio in Pembroke, one is greeted by a group of gourd creatures sitting at the top of the stairs.  “I call these the Welcoming Committee,” she said. “I name all of my gourds because each one is completely different.”  The welcoming commitee is just a few of Blackwell’s more than 300 painted gourd creations. Shelves of gourd Santas, Native American tribal masks, Mexican, and Asian Indian-inspired gourds line the walls, and bags of dried gourds lie in a closet nearby. Blackwell’s studio is temporarily set up above the three-car garage at her cousin Tina Jones Locklear’s house, while she ooks for a house in Pembroke. Blackwell’s passion for gourd art started six years ago. After an accident left her permanently disabled in 1998, she retired from her job at the Department of Defense in Virginia and started travelling with her son, a Chief Warrant Officer 5 master aviator in the US Army, and his family. One day, while at her friend Louise Melton’s farm in Tennessee, she noticed a gourd hanging in a tree. Melton said it was just “an old gourd that’s been there for years,” but Blackwell saw it as an opportunity to make beautiful art. She painted the first one, a birdhouse, for Melton, and a second for her son, Jerry N. Blackwell. He looked at that and said ‘You did this?’ and I said ‘Yes, I did’ and he said ‘Mom, you could sell these!” That started it all. Blackwell began to make gourd art with a passion, using different designs, trying out new types and adding extra decorations. She also developed a system of preparing the gourds for painting. After the first frost, she brings them in to a garage to dry over the winter. After about three months, they develop a mold covering, which she then cleans with bleach. One day, while she was showing her art at a festival, a little boy came up wanting to buy a gourd. He only had one dollar. While her cheapest gourds are marked at $10, Blackwell picked up one with a cat face painted on it and gave it to him. “This is part of the Indian culture,” she said. “Giving is much more important than taking. If you give something and expect something in return, it is not a gift. If you give out of the kindness of your heart, then you have done well and you are going to be blessed many many times over.” After travelling with her son for 11 years, and the death of her Mother (last fall), Blackwell had a choice to make.  Continue to travel with her son and his family to Arizona, Europe, etc or return to home after forty-five years. “I had the opportunity to continue travelling with my son and his family or to come home,” she said. “I just decided the time is right to come back and help my people, the Lumbee tribe,” she said. One way she hopes to do this is by offering gourd art workshops for children and seniors in Robeson County, like she did in Tennessee. he recently spoke with the Lumbee tribal council and presented them with gourds adorned with their logo colors. The tribe is writing up a grant for her to teach the classes, which would be free for anyone under the age of 14. The classes would last about two hours.   The elders fee would cost about $35. “I envision Robeson County one day being a source of gourds and I see in the future that Robeson County will be known for their gourd artists,” she said. The classes would be held at a community center in Lumberton once a week. Blackwell hopes the classes will help her overall goal, to help the community and the children in it. “To me, all this is about giving the farmers one more thing to grow, which in turn will help...the future generation,” she said. “It will give them things to keep their hands busy, because we believe that if you keep your hands busy, your mind will always be good.”  Amanda Munger, Features editor, The Robesonian, (910) 272-6144,


Rutherford Reader Featured Artist 2009

Joan Blackwell - the Woodbury Gourd Lady

One never knows where life will take us.  Just ask Joan Blackwell.  Originally from North Carolina and having lived in Northern Virginia for 36 years, she had never heard of the quaint little town of Woodbury, Tennessee. She certainly never dreamed she would someday live among the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee. Her career as a management analyst in the Department of Defense contracting arena made for long days and nightmarish commutes at the end of the long workdays. Residing in a Virginia suburb just outside Metro Washington D.C., her life was busy, with the routine predictable.

But the twists and turns of life sometimes make for a very winding path.  Joan’s path was abruptly halted and sent into a tailspin in 1998.  She had parked her car and was crossing the street when a drunk driver hit her and left her in the street unconscious.  The near fatal hit-and-run left permanent injuries.  She was flown to a nearby trama center.  During flight her heart was restarted.  She was in a level 13 coma for several days and left the hospital 17 days later.  The head injury resulted in permanent neurological damage.  She suffered a perforated colon and replacement of the ACL, PCL, and MCL to her right knee.  These injuries resulted in intensive reconstructive surgery and physical therapy.  After a gallant attempt to return to work, which turned out to be too exhausting, both mentally and physically --- Blackwell was forced into early retirement. 

Retirement from work, that is.  Joan is fully engaged in life, stretching each day to its limit. She’s been a frequent guest speaker at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sharing the story of her extensive injuries at the hand of a drunk driver. She hopes that hearing the reality of her painful and long road back to recovery will serve as a reminder to others to not “drink and drive.”

She’s an avid flower gardener, the mother of two – one daughter, one son --- and grandmother to 7.  She joyously anticipates the arrival of the eighth grandchild in just a few weeks.  That joy is compounded by the impending return of her son, an Army pilot, due home from overseas just in time for the birth of his second son.  Joan’s days are spent “doing what I love to do, painting art on gourds and working on various art projects.”  She’s very active in volunteer work including helping the elderly and teaching art classes.  Many hours each week are spent cooking (another of her favorite pastimes) --- nearby neighbors enjoy the fruits of her labor in the kitchen.  Wonderful neighbors are another reason Joan is so thrilled with her newly adopted “hometown” where it seems all the ‘unfriendly people must have left town long ago.’ Joan claims one nearby neighbor and longtime Woodbury resident as her own “Woodbury Mom.”  According to Joan, one would be hard-pressed to find a more compassionate and genuine soul than her friend, Louise Melton. It was Louise Melton who first introduced Joan to gourds.  While visiting together one day, Joan noticed the unusually shaped shell of a fruit in her garden. She was fascinated by the hard outer shell and its unique shape. 

Miss Louise gave it to her and she brought it home and made a vase for her son.  Using acrylic paints in earth tones and a coat of glaze, she presented the finished product to her son.  He was impressed by the artistry and suggested she continue to design and create gourd artwork.  

Blackwell’s flair for the handicraft was apparent and her interest in the art grew as she researched various design techniques.  As her collection increased, so did her expertise.  Using her Native American heritage as an influence, Joan created spirit dolls and tribal masks with colorful regalia.  She’s learned to ‘just look around her’ to gather decorative designs and ideas from magazines, books, and common everyday objects like a coffee mug.  Color patterns are gleaned from nature’s palette.  Each creation is unique taking 2 to 3 days from start to finish.  The detailed painting is just the final step in the months-long process which actually begins with a single seed. Some interesting facts about Gourds:

The spiny, sticky pollen is not windborne and requires insects for pollination. The most common pollinator insects appear to be beetles and bees. Gourds are classified as a warm-season crop with a growing season from 100 to 180 days. Gourds are ready for harvest when the stems dry and turn brown. It is best to harvest gourds before frost. Curing gourds is a two-step process that may take 3 to 6 months depending on the type and size of the gourd. Surface drying is the first step in the curing process, and takes approximately one week. Internal drying is the second step in curing and takes a minimum of four weeks. Cured gourds can be painted, waxed, or decorated. Gourds have been cultivated for thousands of years by many cultures worldwide, including Native Americans.  Gourd are known for their usefulness as utensils, storage containers, and as ornaments. Gourds are related to melons, squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers, all members of the Cucurbitaceous or Cucumber family. One Internet reference reports evidence that the hard outer shell of the gourd was used in earlier times to replace missing parts of skulls as part of primitive surgery.  So, it’s quite fascinating to learn about the life of Joan Blackwell, also known as the Gourd Lady of Woodbury.  Although a resident of the area for less than two years, her footprint is firmly entrenched in the rocky soil.  With family nearby and newly-made friends, she’s right at home.  She’s an active member of the Church of Christ at Woodbury and recently spent several days at Short Mountain Bible Camp teaching the youngsters about gourd art. Her inviting yard is filled with perennials and annuals and her home is influenced with the work of her hands. From the brightly painted hues on her walls (that she, herself, chose and applied -- sleeping for two  months on the floor during renovations) to the wide array of gourd artwork proudly displayed alongside family photos on the living room shelves, Joan Blackwell is surrounded by the things she loves.  The old saying goes, “Home is where the Heart is” certainly prevails….  Woodbury seems to have certainly captured Joan Blackwell’s heart!  Just as Joan and her infectious enthusiasm for life has captured the heart of many a Woodbury resident.

Currently, exhibits of Joan’s art are displayed at the Woodbury, TN Arts Center, Joe’s Place Restaurant, The Market Place in Murfreesboro and her home studio in Woodbury.


Artcle one above click on Gourd Fever Banner.  Click here to see article two.


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