After three decades as a textile designer in the home furnishings industry, Carol Krolls career came to a halt. Her Burlington-based employer went through a major restructuring in 2005, closing product lines and putting her out of work.
It was shocking, said Kroll, 57. I wasnt planning on early retirement.
The only bright spot during that time, she said, was meeting her partner, Don Reese. She eventually joined him at his place in rural Chatham County, west of Siler City. Theyd discussed planting a garden to grow their own food and sell what remained, and decided to first enroll in the one-year sustainable agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.
I was terrible at gardening and really wanted to learn, Kroll said. Going back to school was difficult. Id write down everything in longhand and have these huge binders of notes about soil science and chemistry. But I really enjoyed the hands-on parts.
Not only did Kroll learn to garden like a pro, she serendipitously planted the seeds for a new career as a sculptor, with her own homegrown gourds as her medium.
Kroll, a lifelong painter who earned an art degree from the Newark (N.J.) School of Fine and Industrial Arts, wanted to grow the plants because she found their sculptural shapes attractive.
When I went online to learn about growing them, I discovered theres this huge society of gourd artists.
She winces at the term gourd art, acknowledging that the medium has a reputation for kitsch.
Weve all seen bad gourd art a lot of birdhouses and Santa Clauses, she said. But right away I saw the potential for fine art because of the natural beauty of the gourds. Part of my training as an artist has been to take something and make it different and better.
Indeed, Kroll takes the medium to a exceptionally high level of sophistication and artistry in a wide range of work, including functional tabletop pieces, sculptures, wall art and jewelry (using gourd shards). She might carve out curvy, organic shapes or intricate designs, often painting on colors or images.
Her work is incredibly well done, in some places really bold and in others very intricate, said Chris Asuncion, manager at Piedmont Craftsmen Gallery in Winston-Salem, where Kroll started to show her work as a juried member a couple of years ago. Shes even starting to build a following.
Kroll purchased her first canvas, a 6-foot-round bushel gourd, but now grows most of her own from seed, harvesting up to a couple of dozen large gourds a year.
When I saw that first huge gourd, I knew right away this was something I wanted to do, both because of the shape and size, but also I had the desire to work three dimensionally.
She picked up tips from online sites and attended the annual Gourd Artists Gathering in Cherokee, experimenting with tools and techniques all the while. Kroll starts with a basic concept, sometimes sketching it out, other times designing as she goes, letting the shape and texture of the gourd dictate her approach.
Most of the work is subtractive, she said. I start by cutting out larger shapes with a mini-jigsaw, clean the inside out and seal it, and begin the carving process using a dremel.
Her background in commercial design influences her work, especially when observing patterns, but Kroll appreciates the freer form.
I always had to achieve a certain look using certain colors and repeat a lot of shapes, she said. Working three dimensionally, Im not confined to any of those restrictions. I find it really liberating.
While Kroll designs and creates new pieces, another crop of gourds slowly takes shape, from the six-month in-ground growing period to the nearly yearlong drying time. A dried gourd has the consistency and durability of wood.
Im so grateful that Im doing something that combines my passion for art and gardening, she said. Its really exciting to work on something that nature made, and I love the feel and smell of the gourds.
Kroll was inspired to turn her work into a business after taking a marketing workshop through the N.C. Arts Incubator in Siler City five years ago. The next year, thanks to homework assigned in an art display course at Central Carolina, she applied to juried art shows. Not only was she accepted into several, she has won several top prizes, including the Peoples Choice Award in the 2011 Chatham Artists Guild Studio Tour. At this years tour, held the first two weekends of December, shell display her art at the studio of potter Trish Welsh.
Along with a lot of finished work, I also bring one gourd that hasnt been cut into and one that has, she said. People are always curious about the process. The most common question I hear at shows is, Whats that made out of ? People cant believe its a gourd.
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