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Encinitas artist readies to display her art of gourd

ENCINITAS — The gourd art of Grace Anne Swanson will be on exhibit in the lobby of the Encinitas Library from Jan. 9 through Feb. 26.

Gourds feature three themes: geometrics, floral and the sea. Each piece of art is carved, burned, dyed, painted and embellished.

“I love lots of color — bright, shiny color,” Swanson said, smiling. “The sea themes are very popular here.”
Swanson said she was introduced to gourds growing up in Nigeria where her parents were missionaries.

“The Nigerian people use gourds for everything from storing food to spoons to holding cosmetics,” she said.
Swanson initially moved from Nigeria to the Midwest when she was 16, and was later drawn to the warm climate of Southern California. After earning a graphic arts degree from San Diego State, she went on to work as an art director and production manager for local advertising agencies. When her two boys were born, she formed her own graphics business. Later she began to paint in acrylics and watercolor.

The gourd art of Grace Anne Swanson will be on exhibit in the lobby of the Encinitas Library from Jan. 9 through Feb. 26. Photo by Lillian Cox

In 2008, she was serving as a docent at San Diego Botanic Garden when she learned that a class in gourd art was being offered by Sue Richardson.

“I had some decorated gourds from Nigeria and remember the people burning gourds with spears they’d pull from a fire,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll take the class for fun.’”

She added, “The instructor put an inexpensive burning tool into my hand and the smell of the burning gourd brought me home. There’s something wonderful about burning — it’s a very different tactile, primal thing.”

Soon Swanson abandoned her acrylic and watercolor paints, and threw herself into gourd art.

“Gourds have taken over my life,” she said. “My brushes, paints and canvas have been pushed to one side as I explore the wonderfully tactile, three-dimensional world of gourds.”

Swanson purchases her gourds — uncleaned and uncut — from Welburn Gourd Farm just north of Fallbrook. She explains that gourds are grown in many shapes and sizes ranging from tiny “jewelry” gourds to very large ones used as drums. Even though no two gourds are the exact same shape, and they are never perfectly round or symmetrical, there are basic shapes including an apple, bottle, canteen, pear and snake.

This floral themed gourd vessel is carved, burned and dyed. Photo courtesy Grace Anne Swanson

First, Swanson soaks and scrubs farm dirt and the mold off of the gourds. Then she looks at each gourd carefully for any flaws or cracks.

“Each gourd has its own personality and that often dictates what design I’ll burn into the gourd and whether it will stay whole or become a opened vessel,” she said.

The mold that forms on the gourds makes patterns that can be used or disregarded depending on the design. She said that sometimes she has a very definite design in mind when she begins and other times she makes it up as she goes along. Some gourds may take as little as two or three hours to complete. Others may take days or weeks.
Cheryl Ehlers is president of the San Dieguito Art League and a fellow gourd artist.

“Grace has an incredible connection to botanical subject matter that she transforms onto gourds,” she said.

The natural markings of the gourd are preserved. The gourd is embellished with dyed long-leaf pine needles, Irish linen cord, glass beads and stone beads. Photo courtesy Grace Anne Swanson

“Giving the viewer a glimpse of her visions, talent and perception, we can appreciate the beauty in the world surrounding us. Her unique gourds are one of her many passions as are her beautiful watercolors and I am honored to know Grace, both as a colleague and talented artist.”

The library exhibit is made possible through the Civic Art Program, an initiative of the Encinitas Commission for the Arts. The Encinitas Library is located at 540 Cornish Drive. Library hours are Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Swanson’s gourds are sold through the San Dieguito Art Guild’s Off Track Gallery located in The Lumberyard, behind St. Tropez. All current gourds available for purchase may be viewed at For more information, email [email protected].

Other upcoming events include Arts in the Pines, Torrey Pines Association (May 5 and May 6); Mother’s Day Weekend Art and Garden Tour, San Dieguito Art Guild (May 12 and May 13); Gourdstock, Bates Nut Farm (June 29 and June 30); and Garden Expressions, San Diego Botanic Garden (Aug. 21).

For information about gourds, and creating gourd art, visit