HIGHLAND — Cradling the orb in her hands, Sandi Sweeney sees potential beneath its crusty, peeling skin. She just has to be patient.
"It has to sit one to eight months to dry," she said, rotating the ugly gourd -- called a cannonball because of its shape -- in her hand. "They're full of water, like a watermelon, when you pick them."
Sandi, 65, turns gourds into works of art under the name Art by SanPaw, creating sought-after purses, vessels, vases and a vast menagerie of creatures that she sells at juried art shows. SanPaw is a throwback to when she and her father, Richard Moser, now 96, used to work together on art projects in their spare time. Though neither had formal art training, Sandi would draw and "Paw" would work in wood, the two creating items such as small chests of drawers and toys.
Seven years ago, "Somebody gave me a gourd and I played with it," Sandi said of what is now an all-consuming art form.
Each gourd tells her what to do, she said, grinning. "They sort of talk to you. ... They're like people; they come in every shape and size. They're thick and thin and some are crusty."
She turned a big gourd around in her fingers, and appraised it.
"I like the sway of them because they have a natural curvature," she said. "There's probably no gourd that I can't use."
Some gourds don't make it beyond the ugly stage, though.
"Sometimes they mold. Some rot, get soft."
Sandi retired 10 years ago from the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, then moved back to her hometown of Highland with her husband, Dan. They have a son, who lives in Virginia, and three grandchildren.
Standing on the front porch, she rooted through a giant basket full of future projects. Each gourd has a name, based on its shape: canteen, jewelry (tiny and round), banana, bushel, snake, dumbbell and more. And each shape lends itself to a certain outcome.
"I use canteens for my purses," Sandi said of the thick-skinned, sturdy gourds. Banana gourds often become angels, mermaids and beautiful ladies because of long curved bodies.
Jewelry gourds -- some as small as radishes -- make excellent Christmas ornaments, raccoons and owls, as well as heads for those angels and mermaids. Dumbbell gourds can end up as vases minus their tops, while bushels can sit on pedestals as carved-out vessels.
"The challenge is dependent on the gourd itself," said the petite artist. She pulled her feet up under her in a favorite chair in the basement workshop Dan created for her. Working six to eight hours a day, she is surrounded by gourds -- in plastic bins under tables, in corner baskets and stacked on shelves.
The couple grow some of their own, but they buy most when traveling and at craft fairs.
"They're in the attic, in the garage. They're everywhere!"
The inside story
Once a gourd is dry -- and featherweight -- Sandi sets upon its surface with a wire brush, S.O.S soap pads and "a lot of elbow grease" to get the exterior down to a smooth finish.
On bigger gourds, that's when striations, veins, mottling, blemishes and other unique markings come out on the skin.
That's when Sandi gets an inkling what she might create.
But still, she must wait: The innards have to come out next, either the easy way or the hard way.
The easy way is to cut a large lid off the top of a bushel gourd, for example, with a micro saw, similar to a dremel tool.
Other times, Sandi makes small curved openings as part of a pattern or design, making it more difficult to get to the gunk inside.
Sandi attaches a metal brushlike wand to an electric drill to clean out dried seeds and fibrous strands.
"It helps get the guts out," she said.
It's up to the artist what will happen next.
"I base my decision on the skin and what it looks like," she said. She can sand it down and cover it up with paint. Sometimes the bottoms are black on vases and bowls, as are the interiors. Purses are finished inside with paper lining and sealed.
One thing is for sure, though, there will be no birdhouses -- something too many who work with gourds create, she said.
"I like non-traditional kinds of gourd pieces. I look for something different."
Sometimes, Sandi has to cut out rotten parts of the gourd, which can lead to unexpected designs that incorporate the open space.
Using a wood-burning stylus, Sandi may incise elaborate patterns on the surface, following meandering veins. Or she may trace them, adding color with acrylic paint or fabric dyes. Wood stains come into the mix as background to show off the natural markings.
It took a year of experimenting and design work to produce purses she felt would not only be beautiful but practical.
"They have to be useable," she said of including adjustable leather cording or straps, sturdy hinges and bead clasps. She sells them for $40 to $48.
One of her largest pieces is made of giant, fan-shaped ginkgo leaves carved out of a bushel gourd. She painted the leaves several shades of green. Another standout is a tall, shapely vase with entwined blue egrets on a dark background. The birds' necks fit the curve of the gourd. These pieces can cost as much as $85.
At the other end of the spectrum are her smallest works, which start at $9. She paints globe-shaped jewelry gourds and strings them on cord to make necklaces. Whimsical creatures are made from banana- and egg-shaped gourds.
Feathers, wire, acorns as hats, bits of fabric and ribbon turn them into everything from lovely dolls with curly copper hair to prancing horses with wire legs. Sandi even molds faces out of clay made from white bread and glue, then paints them.
"My craft has always incorporated found objects," she said.
"Cast-offs," or leftover gourd pieces, become painted pendants, and she has an idea to make hats and fascinators.
"Maybe I'll add some netting."
Sandi also does commission work.
"I did a gourd for a Realtor with a logo on it," she said. "And I put violins on a gourd for a music teacher."
She's proud of showing at juried art shows, where she typically is entered in the mixed media category. Annually, she travels to shows in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, as well as attending others in Missouri and Illinois. She also has pieces for sale at the Tiadghton House in downtown Lebanon, and the state recognizes her as a juried Illinois artisan.
"I worked a lot of years to move from the crafters world to get juried into the art world," she said. "Gourds are natural canvasses and I'm inspired by them. ... I feel I have really accomplished something."
To see Sandi Sweeney's work, go to her website, sanpaw.com. To contact her, email email@example.com or call 618-651-2196.