For close to 40 years, New Mexico artist Robert Rivera has been taking the humble gourd and transforming it into an object of beauty and symbolism. This metamorphosis into fine art has attracted the attention of collectors throughout the country. Robert likes to call this phenomenon “gourd-itis” since it’s almost impossible to stay satisfied with just one of his unique, sought-after fine art gourds.
“I usually just say I’m an artist … people don’t typically know what a gourd is.”— Robert Rivera
What exactly is a gourd? They belong to the same family as pumpkins and squash. The big difference is that they are hard-shelled and non-edible. They can be colorful or subtle, warty or smooth, bottle-shaped, snake-shaped, large, small. Among the oldest cultivated plants, gourds were used in ancient Egypt to hold water and by indigenous peoples in North America as utensils, storage containers, and dippers. You may have seen them turned into a birdhouse. But you haven’t seen what a gourd can transcend to until you’ve seen how Robert Rivera transforms a gourd.
How It Began
Robert and his wife grew up in Southern California. Shortly after marrying, they moved to New Mexico. On a road trip back to California they drove by a farm and something in the fields caught his eye. The conversation went something like this …
“What in the world is that?”
“What are those?”
“Let’s go take a look!”
Pulling over he asked the woman at the ranch house the same questions. Her reply? “Gourds.” Having never seen anything like them before, he asked if he could have some. Loading their VW to the brim with wet, smelly gourds, his imagination began to buzz. After returning to New Mexico, he started experimenting. His first creation was a toucan, which someone at his workplace wanted to buy. It was then that he knew he was onto something. Armed with limitless ideas and drawing inspiration from his surroundings, he got to work testing the possibilities.
Bowls and Pots
“I love the wide-open blue sky of New Mexico, the expanse, the colors of the land. It inspires me.”— Robert Rivera
How It Continues
Now, decades later, Robert continues to experiment with designs, textures, colors, cultural references, and more. Relishing the challenge of seeing what he can create, he’s started making some of his gourds more contemporary. Often working on four to five pieces at once, Robert has what he refers to as “detail-itis” and finds that once he’s transformed a gourd and embellished it, he needs to stop touching it to keep himself from making continual changes. While out picking gourds (over a thousand a time on some excursions!) he can immediately envision the piece he’s going to make with each one. Upon returning home and unpacking them, he recognizes them again and begins the process of unveiling that hidden figure or bowl or mask. At other times, he may keep a particular gourd for years before deciding on its final transformation. He doesn’t make any preliminary sketches, but rather “gets to it,” finding a therapeutic rhythm in his creative process.
“When I’m creating something, I’m in a zone, concentrating on that piece, focused, not talking … it’s like therapy. Before I know it a piece is done, just like I wanted it. Sometimes I don’t think a piece is going to work out, but it does.”— Robert Rivera
Maidens, Mudheads and Animals
Although Robert now gets the majority of his gourds from Wuertz Farm in Arizona, he’s always on the lookout for natural items to embellish a piece. Among the items he uses are yucca fiber, suede, buckskin, raffia, African beads, shells, heishi from the Santo Domingo Pueblo, inlaid turquoise, willow sticks, horsehair, turkey feathers, cloth, snakeskin, and Tablita headdresses. He has created bowls and rattles, medicine men chanters, Navajo warriors and singers, Hopi butterfly maidens, Navajo drummers, turtle storytellers, and masks of every size and description.
Robert knows that people connect to his artwork in unexpected ways. A piece that one person passes over is the same piece that speaks to someone else. Not wanting to influence how someone connects with his work, he prefers to let each piece communicate for itself, allowing us to create a story uniquely our own.
“There’s something special about art … each person makes a personal connection … people see my gourds and I think the pieces talk to them.”— Robert Rivera
Figures and Masks
“How many of us would think of using a gourd to create a piece of fine art? But that’s exactly what Robert does with every piece that passes through his hands. He sees the potential, he sees beyond what most of us see. The shape, colors, motifs, designs all come together, transforming a humble gourd into a unique piece of art, ready to add to your collection.”— Shanan Campbell, owner of Sorrel Sky Gallery