This neighborhood retiree is passionate about dried fruit

Gerry Flewharty is an award-winning gourd artist. Photo by Wade Griffith

Gerry Flewharty is an award-winning gourd artist. / Photos by Wade Griffith

Retirement ushers in an era of free time — and lots of it. To fill the void left by a longtime career, some people take up golfing, some travel, and some find new hobbies.

Lake Highlands resident Gerry Flewharty found gourds.

After 20 years of working in education, Flewharty retired in 1994. The next year, she took a trip to Santa Fe, N.M., and saw a gourd display in an art gallery window.

Photo by Wade Griffith

“I was just fascinated because I was like, ‘Hey, this is what I grew up with!’ and the prices were really rather expensive,” she says. “So I came home and thought, ‘I think I’ll try this.’ ”

Flewharty was introduced to gourds as a child. She began collecting wild buffalo gourds growing along fencerows near the ranch and farmlands in West Texas where she grew up. During the holidays, Flewharty remembers painting dried gourds and hanging them on the Christmas tree as ornaments. She also played with gourds as balls.

“Gourds have been around a long time, and it’s just in the past few years that they’ve really become popular,” she says.

Flewharty appears almost giddy as she talks about gourds. She is clearly passionate — so much so that she is the officer in charge of membership for the Texas Gourd Society.

In 1995, as Flewharty was rediscovering gourds in New Mexico, nine other likeminded Texans formed the Texas Gourd Society, which has since grown to more than 300 members. Flewharty attended the first meeting in Killeen in March 1996, and has been involved with the organization ever since.

The society’s big event is the annual Lone Star Gourd Festival in Fredericksburg, where gourd art entrants (231 last year) compete for prize ribbons. Gourd artistry can be a lucrative business — prices can range from $20 to $200 and up, depending on the type and size of artwork. The society also compiles a regular publication for its members called the Texas Gourdzette.

And between statewide meetings, local groups come together in “gourd patches.” Flewharty organized the Dallas Gourd Patch and served as president for two years. The first meeting was in 1997, and today, the Dallas Gourd Patch consists of 26 members who meet at the nearby Dallas Elks Lodge. Current patch president Sylvia Gaines says Flewharty’s vision, both for the statewide and local groups, “has made such an impact in the art community that enjoys working on gourds.”

So, what exactly are gourds?

“When you talk to somebody, either they know what it is or they’ve got a blank look on their face, and it’s like, ‘We’re going to have to explain this,’ ” Flewharty says.

To correct a common misconception, pumpkins and squash are not gourds. But “gourds are cousins to the pumpkin and the squash,” Flewharty says. “They’re in the same family.”

A gourd is a fruit with a hard shell that grows on a vine, and they are believed to be among the first cultivated plants. Though some gourds are edible, Flewharty says she has never eaten them.

Flewharty says the best time to plant gourds is after the last freeze. The white blossoms of the plant open up at night. By late summer or early fall, the gourds will be ready for harvesting. When gourds are green, they’re about 90 percent water, but when gourds dry — a process that takes about nine months — they harden, turn brown and have a wood-like texture. This texture makes them ideal for arts and crafts as well as utilitarian uses. Flewharty says the early pioneers used gourds as vessels. She remembers her great-grandmother used a dipper gourd in the country to draw water.

“It’s a round gourd with a long handle,” she says. “They’d hollow them out, clean them, and they’d dip them down in the bucket to drink out of them.”

Now, Flewharty is amazed by the different uses for gourds. Gourds can be used to make everything from birdhouses to candleholders to purses.

“You really don’t recognize them as being gourds,” she says.

Flewharty’s gourd folk art fills her home, and she has won several awards for it, including Texas Gourd Society Artist of the Year in 2003.

“I’ve tried a lot of crafts and things, and about the time I learn how to do something, I’d get tired of it,” Flewharty says. “But with gourds, that hasn’t happened.

“It’s relaxing and it’s creative and, most of the time, it’s fun,” she says. “Every gourd’s different.”