I had the pleasure of meeting multi-media artist Tamsen Fox at the KailuaTown Farmer's Market when I was on Oahu last fall. I was really taken with the hand-carved gourds she makes using the ancient Hawaiian Ni'ihau method developed hundreds of years ago.
Tamsen was born on the islands and her adopted family moved to London and later California where she went to college and raised her two sons. She visited Hawaii every year and finally moved back for good in 2010. Her work has taken many forms over the years including graphic design, fish made from palm tree bark, jewelry, painting, and of course the topic of the day, carved gourds.
Gourd plants were one of the original plants the Spanish brought to the U.S. where they were carved and used as canteens. They are thought to have originated in Asia and in addition to being used throughout Europe, they have been found in Peruvian archaeological sites dating back as far as 13,000 BC. They are considered the first “domesticated” plant. So with that history it’s no wonder they have been used in so many different ways. The Ni'ihau technique starts at the time you pick a green gourd from the vine.
Tamsen carves into the gourd with the tip of an unplugged wood burning tool and then the gourd sits for a few days.
Then she fills the vessel with Hawaiian Sandalwood bark dye (or sometimes strong coffee) and keeps it topped off for at least 3 weeks. During this curing time the gourd is going through a molding process and it can get smelly. Essentially the bark dye seeps into the green gourd skin, dying it with intense color. She monitors the outside of the gourd and once it looks ready she cleans the finished product by soaking it in sea water. She leaves it filled with sea water for about a week.
After that it needs to dry for another week. And then she can polish the finished piece with kukui nut oil to bring it to a high luster. Here Tamsen talks more about her work on this Made in Hawaii segment on Hawaii News Now in 2014.
Tamsen creates what she has termed, “heart art” with each piece made with tremendous care and love. She has many pieces she won’t sell and those comprise her own “collection of souls” that she keeps in her studio for comfort and inspiration.
One of her pieces just won an award of excellence at the Hawaii Craftsmen at Linekona show.
Tamsen also makes beautiful drums. The bottom is half of a carved gourd with stretched goat skin over the top. In this case she’s drawn a Hawaiian owl (or “pueo,” in Hawaiian). This sort of owl is sacred to the Hawaiian islands.
In my travels since meeting Tamsen I’ve seen carved gourds in many places. In Peru I found these intricately carved pieces.
In San Diego we found these incredible pieces at a gallery in Balboa Park’s Spanish Village.
For as many of these as I’ve seen it amazes me how labor-intensive and complicated they are to make. As you can imagine, the carving work can take a toll and Tamsen’s own hands are suffering from the years of gourd carving and creating her very popular tiny Menehune wish pots (seen in the Made in Hawaii clip above).
Tamsen says the universe serves her and she serves the universe and I believe her. There is an authenticity to her nature that is undeniable and her creations come from a place of warmth and openness. You can see more of Tamsen’s work on her website, www.tamsenfox.com and on her Instagram page. Here’s a short video montage of more of her work:
If you see a beautiful carved gourd remember how much patience and care it takes to create them and if you bring one of those special pieces into your home, know that the person who made it did so with love and attention, which all of us can use more of.