Gourds gone wild: Rural Indiana edition 

click to enlarge Here be a gourd decorated by Perry Riley, Jr.
  • Here be a gourd decorated by Perry Riley, Jr.

Before you adorn your gourd, you must first dry it. That's according to backwoodsman, farmer, educator and gourdsmith Perry Riley Jr., who will bring his latest gourd-based creations - along with a few paintings, drawings and prints - to Dewclaw this month.

Riley Jr. lives in a 16-room cabin on a 160-acre farm in rural Indiana near the Illinois border. He built the cabin himself, in part using recycled wood, and he grows his own food on his homestead. (Since 1987, Riley Jr. has been involved with the Ver Sacrum Art Studio in Kingman, Ind., which restores 17th and 18th-century log structures.)

And, of course, Riley Jr. raises gourds, roughly 3,000 a year on a seven-acre plot. He's stored away roughly 10,000 dried gourds in a semi-trailer and other locations on his property, separated by size and shape into trash cans.

Riley Jr. dries his gourds by stacking them into a pyramid shape on an elevated surface. The configuration allows air to flow freely over the surfaces of the gourds.

click to enlarge Perry Riley Jr.
  • Perry Riley Jr.

Once the gourds are free of mold and dry, Riley Jr., who has a master's degree in printmaking from the University of San Antonio, brings his painterly skills to bear on the gourds, decorating them using watercolors, fabric dyes, oil paints or printing inks, and sometimes incising or burning gourds to create more complex textures. He's earned multiple first and second places awards for his pieces at the Indiana Gourd Show.

Riley Jr.'s work intentionally gestures toward primitive icons and techniques, with particular attention to the art and culture of the American Southwest.

"I think when you look at my work, especially when you see it in person, it has this incredible sense of residual history," says Perry. "It has a sense of age and I enhance that as much as I can. I keep pushing myself and my boundaries of time and space."

The modern world nonetheless infects his personal iconography, in the form of flashlights, lampshades and other contemporary tools that figure in his designs. Riley Jr., born in 1970, was, after all, raised in the 21st century, even if he grew up in rural Indiana.

"There were not a lot of playmates because there wasn't really anyone around. My sister was a lot older than me too," he says. "That left me playing in the woods a lot as a child and having a very observant eye about what was going on around me and constantly questioning a lot of things. Like why certain trees grew in certain places, and why mushrooms, which are actually called morels, and fishing and the outdoor boy stuff. That kind of set a passion for a deeper understanding of the underlying principle of things."

Riley Jr. is still questioning the natural world, according to Carla Knopp, the owner of Dewclaw, where Riley's show The Things That Come To Pass will open Friday. "Here is someone who has really engaged in his own investigative work," she says. "He's really developed something."

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