The value of art weighs on many factors; its beauty, its
authorship, and its medium are a few that viewers quickly
assess when considering the worth of a piece.
One of the most interesting aspects of art is its durability
- will it stand the test of time? And if it doesn’t,
does that temporality sacrifice some of the value of the
For investors, there’s no question that durability
matters. After all, how can a piece of art increase in
value while it decomposes. On the other hand, certain artists
view the ephemerality of their art as a way of giving appropriate
importance to the very act of creating - consider Navajo
sand paintings, which are left to blow away after they
When art withstands the ravages of time, do we value
it primarily for its aesthetics or its history? Take
the Chauvet cave paintings, the oldest known “museum.” They
are priceless, but would we sell them, or part with them,
if they were portable?
Time is after all a big component in considering art, and
therefore art created in certain media (like oils, marble,
photography, etc.) tends to be more prized and taken more
So, I hope you will forgive me when I shamefully admit my
lack of enthusiasm when I was asked to interview Michael
A. Wages, who creates art out of gourds. I thought I was
being asked to contemplate that fine line between art and
How wrong I was.
Wages’ work is finely detailed, beautifully composed
and unique. It also bridges modern creation with the artwork
and history of the tribes who peopled this very area centuries
For those of you reading this article and who have probably
already perused the attached photographs of Wages’ work,
it may be difficult to imagine my preconceptions when I heard “gourds,” and
imagined cute birdhouses.
Looking at these gracefully decorated pieces evokes the
aesthetics and storytelling capacity of ancient Anasazi pottery.
In fact, Wages has created an optical illusion with his gourds
that tricks the eye into believing that these containers
are at times made of fired clay rather than dried vegetables.
This illusion is attributed to several interesting factors.
The first is the surprising symmetry of the actual gourds.
One could say that these near-perfect proportions are
in thanks to nature, not Wages. However, as anyone who
is familiar with gourds knows, they tend to look lopsided,
due in part to the listing top. Wages admits that the
first time he saw a gourd, he blurted out, “What the hell is that?!?
That was four years ago when he was recovering from a severe
foot injury and was in need of a sit-down sort of activity.
A native of Houston and the son of a creative family, Wages
had experience in various media, none of which grabbed his
Despite his unfortunate first impression,
he looked at the gourd long enough to discover its possibilities,
and has been creating beauty and symmetry ever since. The
gourd has a Doberman-like lock on Wages and won’t
Wages is adept at removing the ungainly parts and retaining
only the part that looks like it was flung off a potter’s
wheel in concentric circles, including the finely shaped
and smoothed rim.
And, if nature does not accommodate Wages, he takes matters
into his own hands. Rather than waiting for nature to produce
the proper looking specimen, Wages is capable of crafting
the right shape out of several gourds.
His latest piece, inspired by a pot dating around 1100
from a private collection, is truly a trompe l’oeuil. Like
Dr. Frankenstein, Wages cannibalized parts from three separate
gourds in order to create one with the roundness, raised
neck and lip he desired. Through a complicated technique
he’s not ready to divulge, he imbues the black and
white gourd with a patina that resembles that of ancient
He creates an illusion in which the gourd takes on the
appearance of clay or stone. In addition to his primary
tool, the wood-burner, he also uses leather dyes, acrylic
paint, urethane and other “secret
stuff” to color and polish the designs. In certain
pieces, the burnished black shapes have the luster of onyx.
He also works with the natural mottling of the gourd which
absorbs color differently, creating an intriguing pattern
that much resembles marble.
The most intriguing aspect of gourd-burning for Wages
is not the painting, polishing or tricking the viewer’s
eye into thinking the gourd is made out of a different substance.
It is the design.
Fascinated by Anasazi and Pueblo
art, Wages has linked himself to the past by finding inspiration
in their designs and carrying on many of their traditions.
He admits that “I’m
drawn to more primitive ways of producing this art.”
And why not? This is art that has survived for a millenium.
Although he improvises his designs as he passes the wood-burner
over the gourd, he gives credit to the indigenous artists
for the running motifs he borrows from their pottery.
In the gourd whose black design depicts the recognizable
buttes of Castle Valley (he rarely titles his pieces, other
than using a serial number to indicate the date of completion),
two Hopi birds complete the design. Wages believes that this
stylized representation is actually the macaw, a type of
parrot brought up from South America and highly prized by
the Anasazi. Wages believes his best pieces incorporate this
Although he is highly influenced by Native American pottery,
Wages mostly creates spontaneously. He picks up a gourd and
just starts running a line and lets the design flow out of
him. Much like the ancient potters, he allows the emerging
design to tell a story, often one symbolic of a personal
In “Three Storms” (one
of the few gourds that has a name), Wages memorializes
a series of dry summer storms when the desert is bristling
with electricity. The obsidian shapes represent the thunder
and a jagged bolt of lightning. The arcs symbolize the
sunset, the time when Wages witnessed these natural theatrics.
Looking at this piece helps the viewer understand the three-dimensional
qualities of this art, which is difficult to capture in a
photo. Wages states that the gourds are intended to be viewed
aerially, yet the design changes as the gourd is turned on
its infinite axis.
The shape of the gourd also influences the design. Even though
the designs are composed almost entirely of straight lines,
the curvature of the canvas makes many of them appear rounded.
Because of this idiosyncrasy of his medium, Wages enjoys
reproducing the same design on gourds of different shapes,
exploring the varying results.
Wages designed his own representation of the Hopi story of
creation in a bold geometric pattern using rich hues of black,
red and beige onto a wide gourd that looks like the top and
bottom have been flattened towards each other.
The mouth of the vessel and the square design around it
symbolize the hole out of which the first people emerged
and the four directions towards which the new inhabitants
of the earth migrated. The ornate arrow-like shapes on
the sides of the pot represent the cardinal points. The
North and South share the same design, whereas the East
and West display unique shapes, symbolizing their importance
because of the sun’s
He reproduced the same design on an elongated gourd with
a raised lip. Although the design is recognizable, the result
is quite different than the original.
Wages’ designs are striking, well-balanced and detailed,
oeuvres worth collecting. Which raises the question of durability
once again. The designs are timeless, but the medium is organic.
Does it last?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” according to
Wages and collectors of his art.
Gourd-carving has an illustrious tradition, starting when
man began decorating his tools. Wages believes that the gourd
was probably one of the first utensils man used, and that
because of their biodegradability, there are not many left.
However, if these vessels are kept indoors, he claims that
they will last indefinitely. He has collectors who are willing
to bank on this assurance. Not surprising, considering how
masterfully Wages bridges beauty and history together through
his gourd art.