Field of dreams — and gourds


Cured gourds ready for cleaning and carving
By Melissa Shaw-Smith

Jennifer Flis came to Warwick to look after her ailing grandfather, Pa-Pa, and inherited an unusual legacy: a field of gourds. The Luft farm had been in her family since 1916, but unlike her grandparents, Flis — a trained art therapist and world traveler — had no farming experience. When her grandfather died, she stayed on to keep her grandma company.

Flis and her partner Aaron Houck spent their first summer growing sunflowers and vegetables, which they sold from a stall in Sugar Loaf. One day, needing extra produce, Aaron set up Pa-Pa’s dried gourds. They sold out, as did the gourd birdhouses they made the following week. They were on to something.

“We loaded Grandma up and went down to Lancaster, PA,” said Flis. They bought more gourds from an Amish farmer named Henry, and over the course of several visits asked many questions about growing and curing them. Now, after a couple of seasons, they have brought their shop to the farm, and grow enough gourds to stock Luft Gardens, their growing roadside business.

One of the earliest plants cultivated by man, gourds serve many uses: tools, storage vessels, toys, musical instruments. The kettle and bottle gourds that Flis and Houck grow lie in the fields all winter, their shells hardening while the seeds dry up inside. Come spring, the couple cleans off the cured husks, drills out the seeds, and carves them, using jigsaws, Dremels, and hot knives. In addition to birdhouses, they turn the gourds into whimsical objects painted with oil-based dye and varnished into Jack-o-lanterns, elves and snowmen.

Future plans for Flis include canning and pickling workshops, and, drawing on her training as an art therapist, a park for children with special needs. A self-confessed hoarder of interesting objects, Flis has arranged farm equipment into sculptures around the place.

Folks driving by — particularly kids — have been known to rubberneck, but things got really magical when Flis reconnected with an old friend from Ecuador, a talented wood carver and sculptor. Fidias Vasquez, using a chainsaw and a set of tools passed down from his father, has filled the landscape with a fairytale narrative of fantastical horses, owls, an eagle, a dragon. One fall afternoon appeared Vasquez’ piece de resistance: from the trunks of huge living trees emerged the faces of tree spirits, of whom Flis had long dreamt.