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Behind her eyes: Using her creative vision, Whitney Peckham transforms gourds into fine art

By Katie Scarvey
kscarvey@salisburypost.com
“Color and imagery dance in my head, asleep or awake,” says artist Whitney Peckman on her Web site.
“I cannot live long enough to give expression to all that lies behind my eyes.”
Those words convey a great deal about Peckman’s compulsion to create.
Peckman lives and works on the second floor of the old Flowers Bakery building, which now houses EastSquare ArtWorks downstairs. The gallery features Peckman’s work as well as the art of her husband, Syed Ahmad, and artists Michael and Connie Baker ó who also live and work in the building.
Peckman and Ahmad, who have been married for 20 years, moved to Salisbury from San Diego largely because they loved the Flowers building and the potential it had.
They also thought Salisbury was “quite charming.”
Peckman’s studio is in the bakery’s old yeast room ó which seems an appropriate venue for creation and growth. Scattered around a large work table, in various stages of completion, are not canvases but gourds.
Peckman has been carving and painting gourds for about 20 years.
Gourds, she says, are an interesting material to work with, since each one is unique.
If you are picturing a cute little pumpkin-y thing with a funny painted face ó of the sort you might find at a church bazaar ó you need to adjust your imagination.
Peckman’s gourd creations ó whether abstract, botanical or Japanese in style ó are serious art requiring hours of labor to produce.
For the most part, she uses bushel basket and zucca gourds because of their size. They are partially dry when she gets them from her California grower, and they continue to lose moisture until they are ready to work with. Cured properly, they’ll last indefinitely.
When she was starting out, Peckman learned how to make the cuts by trial and error ó breaking a lot of pieces in the process. She still occasionally snaps off a piece accidentally, but she’s learned to predict how a gourd will react as she sculpts it.
With the large gourds running $45 each, making major mistakes can be expensive.
Doing gourd art, Peckman says, is kind of like playing the guitar ó easy to learn but hard to master.
Peckman draws the gourd freehand and then burns the lines on with a woodburning tool. Sometimes, she paints the gourd before she sculpts; other gourds she sculpts before she paints.
She uses a tiny electric saw to make her cuts, following up with an Exacto knife to do the finish work.
After the cutouts are done, she sands the edges.
Many of her gourd pieces are quite large. Some of her smaller pieces are boxes that feature beautiful designs based on kimono patterns.
Peckman uses acrylic paints but says that her layering glazing style, with its shading and luminescence, owes a lot to oil painting technique.
Once a piece is finished, Whitney’s next step surprises some folks.
“I take them out to my guys at Sudden Impact,” she says.
Sudden Impact Auto Body & Paint Shop, that is. They spray a clear coat on Peckman’s pieces ó kind of the equivalent of putting a frame on a piece of art, she says.
The glossy coating gives the gourds a finished look.
And after the clear coat goes on, Peckman says, people will no longer say, “It’s just a gourd.”
Although some of her customers like a matte finish, most prefer the high-gloss look.
Peckman also uses a sculpting medium with some of her gourds. She applies a claylike substance to the outside of the gourd, forming pieces that are reminiscent of capo di monte porcelain. Those tend to take an inordinate amount of time, Peckman says, so she doesn’t do as many of those.
It’s hard for her to judge how much time goes into a piece because she is working on several pieces at any one time. A large piece might have 50 hours of labor in it or more.
Peckman has been a professional artist since she was 25. Before she began working with gourds, Peckman designed and wove tapestries.
She gave up weaving after many years because bending over the loom was wreaking havoc on her back. Tired of having to see her chiropractor so often, she decided to pursue something less stressful on her body.
Carving gourds presents other physical challenges, particularly to her hands.
“I don’t seem to be able to pick an easy medium,” says Peckman, laughing.
Peckman estimates that she works about 60 hours a week, which includes all the paperwork and marketing tasks that fall to a professional artist.
“It’s not an easy way to make a living,” she says. “You have to keep at it.”
Peckman also paints canvases, and Waterworks Visual Arts Center has scheduled an exhibit of her paintings next June. The theme of those pieces, she says, will be nature and women.
Peckman teaches weekend gourd workshops twice a year ó one for beginners and one for those with some experience.
She accepts commissions.
Peckman has a busy season of shows coming up. The Piedmont Craftsmen’s Fair is coming up in Winston-Salem Nov. 14-16, and she’ll be in Raleigh Nov. 28-30 for the Carolina Designer Craftsmen Show.
Peckman was also selected as one of 175 craft artists from around the country to participate in the American Craft Show in Charlotte, which opens Friday.
She was one of only 30 artists selected from the Carolinas.You can also see Peckman’s work at EastSquare ArtWorks, 120 E. Innes St. A little tricky to find, it’s located directly behind Textile Products on North Main Street and behind Dee’s Jeweler’s on East Innes Street.
Find out more about Whitney Peckman’s art at www.whitneypeckman.com.
For more about EastSquare ArtWorks, go to www.east squareartworks.com.

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