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Boyles’ gourd art connects the community in Kansas

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Community Building in Rossville, Kansas, fosters kinship through a wide variety of classes. Elders, in particular, gather at the center for companionship and fun. Tribal member Judy Boyles teaches a gourd decorating class on occasion and appreciates the outlet.

As an artist, she is entirely self-taught. Boyles attended a rural school district with no art classes, and besides a few lessons at the YMCA, she never learned from an instructor. Creative expression holds a special place in her heart, and she always preferred to spend her free time making something beautiful.

“Painting and drawing and that kind of thing is just. … Time goes away,” she said and laughed. “You know, I lose myself in it.”

During childhood, the Smith family descendant played with clay she found on the farm as well as designed posters and yearbook art. She continues to make flyers for nonprofits and local organizations now.

Boyles worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company several decades ago. She ended up creating logos and ads for the Yellow Pages after an artist became ill close to a deadline. The company bought everything she made and offered her a graphic design position afterward.

Throughout the years, she found her love of watercolor and oil painting. Boyles discovered gourd decorating after attempting pottery and found she enjoyed the former’s flexibility. Artists inlay designs, carve images and add lace or beading.

Potawatomi culture and history inspires Tribal member Judy Boyles while she carves and paints gourds.

“They’re very adaptable to any kind of paint, even shoe polish and watercolors,” she said.

She first encountered decorative gourds in an art museum during a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband in the early 2000s. Boyles decided to try, and she began reading books and studying the process of taking one from a flowering plant to decoration.

She traveled to gourd festivals across the country, including Native American exhibitions, and learned from observing other people’s work and processes. Craft fairs, farm and garden expos, and art shows keep Boyle stocked. Farmers in the area know she paints and decorates them, and they keep her in mind at harvesting time.

“It takes a lot of land to grow a gourd. You can’t do it just in a residential yard because they just take over — their huge vines. They would just take over the world if you let them,” she said.

They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes across the country. Thicker specimens generally found on the West Coast lend themselves to carving and inlays. Those grown in the Midwest are thinner and more difficult to carve, although inlaying, beading and lacing result in beautiful pieces. However, Boyles prefers painting.

“A fungus will get on it or a bug bites, or different things, you know, and so they have a natural pattern on them sometimes. It’s just like looking up at the sky and seeing the clouds, and you find a design in the clouds,” she said. “And so that’s what I like to do is just follow the natural growth patterns of the gourds and stuff and go with them.”

She knew little about Potawatomi culture for most of her life but spent the last 15 to 20 years learning about the traditions and history. Gourd decorating keeps her in touch with what she read and discovered while visiting the CPN Cultural Heritage Center. She often paints eagles and other significant wildlife and landscapes with a Tribal connection, including the nearby Uniontown cemetery where some of her family is buried.

“(Uniontown) is where wagon trains came through to go to California and Oregon,” she said. “They’d cross the river there, and so I (paint) wagon trains and Indians and that kind of thing, trading post type stuff.”

While teaching classes at the Rossville Community Center, she covers how to start with a gourd from scratch. The prep work includes cleaning, scraping and cutting the desired design. Afterward, the artistry begins, and Boyles enjoys seeing the talent displayed through the different ways her neighbors and Tribal members make them into masterpieces.

“We just feed off of each other. We exchange knowledge, and it’s just something that I can help with,” she said.

“Most of us up here were not raised in the Potawatomi culture. So, we’re learning so much about our ancestry and the history, and it’s just a great asset.”

Boyles hopes to teach more classes later this year, including one on how to make gourd jewelry.

CPN District 4 Legislator Jon Boursaw holds meetings and events at the Citizen Potawatomi Community Building located at 806 Nishnabe Trial, Rossville, KS 66533. Check the CPN event calendar at potawatomi.org/events.