For Dagsboro artist Barbara Burns, decorating for the holidays is nothing new, with a love for painting and crafts that began as far back as she can remember. This past season, though, she tried her hand at what may be one of her most successful craft projects yet. By carefully sculpting clay onto gourds before painting them to resemble snowmen and Santa Claus, she creates a three-dimensional realism that brings them to life.
Every line carved into the clay and every brush stroke on each unique gourd promises a one-of-a-kind creation with pure originality. Intricate details and careful coloring entice liveliness in her work.
The process takes roughly four hours, Burns said, not including the time needed for the clay to harden. “I’ll sculpt three or four in a day and let them dry,” she said. “Then I paint them the next day.”
Almost all of her projects are made to order. “They’ll ask me to include their pets or stockings with their children’s name on them.” Burns has sculpted a variety of dogs, including terriers, dachshunds and collies.
She has been painting gourds for the Christmas holiday since, 2002, but this year was her first attempt at incorporating clay into the idea. With 40 clay Santa gourds sold this season, Burns said she was very pleased with the turnout, but sold out before the first week of December. Prices for the gourds ranged from $40 to $100.
“Everyone tells me, ‘You could get more money for them,’” Burns said, “I don’t know. I don’t have a big family for Christmas. When people buy a gourd, it is like part of me going to their family. Hopefully, it will be a tradition for them.”
Burns guarantees customer satisfaction with each delicate work she completes. “They just tell me what they want and they are usually happy with whatever I make. If they aren’t happy, they’re not obligated to take it.” And Burns has held on to a choice few gourds that she couldn’t stand to part with.
She said she has taken a break from the crafts to enjoy the holiday, but she plans on starting back on her gourd Santas with the new year. With a collection of unpainted, “unclayed” gourds accumulating in a storage room, Burns she has more than enough to keep her busy throughout the year.
“I don’t even try to do spring and Easter crafts,” said Burns. “Christmas is my favorite holiday. I think those are the fondest memories when I was a kid,” said the artist, who got into the spirit early this year, putting her Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving Day.
Even without a Web site or any public advertising, Burns said she doesn’t have trouble finding people who want her work. “I don’t really [participate in] craft fairs,” she said. “All of it is word of mouth.”
And word is traveling quickly. Burns has sold some of her gourds at Selbyville Pet and Garden Center, where she has worked and now manages that business since her move from Baltimore, more than 13 years ago. Word has spread from their display in Selbyville, but there has been a cost.
“People don’t really appreciate them as hand-made when they see them at the store,” she said. “They’ll manhandle them and break the stems off. It’s like they don’t realize that they are all hand-made.” So, most of her business is done directly out of her Route 113 home, with much support from her husband, Paul, a retired fish and wildlife agent.
“I’ve been painting and drawing all my life,” she said. “I paint on anything. I really love the freedom.” She has painted on canvas, jackets, stones, gourds and windows, never limiting herself to a single medium.
“Crafting, for me, is like a diet,” said Burns. “I could either be eating or crafting.”
From an assortment of paintings to candy bouquets and “thistle critters” — which she makes from burrs, seeds, pods and bark that she collects while hiking through the woodlands of Maine — Burns has no trouble keeping herself occupied. Needlepoint is the only craft she said she has never really been able to get into.
“I can’t stand to be bored,” she admitted, and it shows in her work. When not pressed with 45-hour weeks at Selbyville Pet and Garden Center, there is always a painting or craft to be working on, or something unique that needs doing. In the summertime, Burns spends most of her days cleaning ponds. The artist even spent four years of her life flying falcons. “I like to try a little bit of everything,” she said with a laugh.
Some of her paintings and craftwork can be found at the Selbyville Pet and Garden Center. For more information about her gourds and other art, call her at (302) 853-0429.