She's Into Her Gourds

May/June 2000

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She's Into Her Gourds

Courtesy Ginger Summit

You can't miss Ginger Summit's house -- it's the one with all the gourds on the porch. Green globes with ivory stripes, yellow clubs covered in warty bumps, skinny brown squashes that twist like snakes. Step inside the Los Altos home and you'll see hundreds more from all over the world -- beaded, carved, strung as fiddles, painted as Santa Claus.

Each of the vine-borne fruits has a story. "See these three holes? They're so that the crickets can breathe," Summit says, lifting a tarnished ball and pointing to its delicate top. "In China, at cricket fights, men used to carry their tiny contenders in this gourd."

Ginger Summit is a guru of gourds, an expert on their history, cultivation and rich potential in decorative art. The author of three books on the subject, all selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, she has spent the last decade establishing gourd-crafting as a popular creative pastime and art form. "The wonderful thing about gourds is that you can hand a beginner one with a few pens, and they'll turn out great stuff," says Summit, a retired special education teacher. "And for an artist, it's a brand-new medium -- it gives you a new idea. Plus, it just looks good," she adds with a smile, fingering a miniature squash dangling from her necklace.

"Ginger has helped bring gourd art to thousands of people, starting a trend that has just exploded in the last four years," says Ardith Willner of Santa Cruz, vice president of the California Gourd Society, who estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 Americans now enjoy the hobby.

Summit first got interested in gourds in 1990 when she saw an exhibit at a conference for weavers. Back then, she says, "many people didn't know what gourds were." After scouring libraries for books on gourd projects, she decided to carve out her own place in the craft world. Along with photographer Jim Widess, she gathered ideas from hundreds of artists for their first book, The Complete Book of Gourd Craft (Lark Books, 1996), now in its 20th printing. Next came Gourds in Your Garden (Hillway Press, 1998). Then Summit and her husband, retired business executive Roger Summit, '52, MBA '57, PhD '66, went to West Africa to study gourd use by musicians. That led to Making Gourd Musical Instruments (Sterling, 1999), which shows how to construct -- and play -- 60 traditional string, wind and percussion instruments, and comes with an audio CD.

These days, Summit is scouting for a new craft to try. "I keep telling my husband the next time I get into something it's going to be beads or buttons, because gourds are really hard to store," she says. They do, however, look smashing on a porch.

-- Sonya Schneider, '00

Read a March 2011 update on this story.

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