- Associated Press - Friday, August 22, 2014

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) - They’re traditionally used for drinking vessels, birdhouses and the occasional decorative fall spread.

But a little imagination can transform the humble gourd into an instrument, a work of fine art or a toy race car.

“They’re just such unusual shapes. Even the natural color of the gourd, you can put a stain on it and it looks just as beautiful as an exotic wood,” said Ronnie Moyers. He’s a volunteer at Mayfield’s Ice House Art Gallery, which hosts the annual Gourd Patch Arts Festival and All About Gourds exhibition. “They’re just real versatile.”

The gourd draws more admirers than one would think. A simple Internet search reveals a whole culture of gourd artists and enthusiasts. The vine-grown crop even has its own national association, of which the Ice House is a part. For David Meeks, owner of the Pumpkin Barn in Melber, the love of gourds started with a handful of seeds and has grown into a 30-by-80 foot gourd arbor. Meeks can be found manning his 40-foot wagon full of gourds at the Mayfield festival every year.

Meeks started growing pumpkins, gourds and corn as a hobby after he retired from teaching welding at West Kentucky Community & Technical College. He soon struggled to find enough neighbors and friends to take all the pumpkins he grew, so he went into business. In addition to his gourd arbor, Meeks now has 7 1/2 acres of pumpkins, and his farm has become a traditional fall destination for many families in the region.

Meeks plants the gourds around May, and the vines begin producing in late June or early July. Some of the gourds - take the Indonesian bottle gourd - grow up to 5 feet in length and require support so they don’t fall to the ground and burst. That’s why visitors to the arbor will see gourds wrapped in pantyhose, he added.

Meeks estimates that his barn houses as many as 8,000 dried gourds of all sizes and shapes. Last week, he sold to four gourd artists from the region. Meeks himself sticks to birdhouses and bowls, but daughter Tammy Thomason is a gourd artist. “Gourds are like any other craft you get into. It’s kind of habit-forming. You enjoy and get pleasure and relaxation working on one,” he said.

All About Gourds typically receives between 30 and 40 entries, according to Ice House Executive Director Shane Gregory.

There was a time when the exhibition drew submissions from distant places such as India, but Gregory suspects shipping costs have put a damper on international entries the past few years. Still, “we’ve been getting more national stuff from all over the country. It’s gotten better and better,” Gregory said.

The exhibition, which is the focal point for the Sept. 20 Gourd Patch Arts Festival, will be Sept. 9 through Oct. 11 at the Ice House Gallery, 120 N, Eighth St., Mayfield.

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Information from: The Paducah Sun, http://www.paducahsun.com