Gussying up gourds

RUSKIN- A family of hard-shelled fruits populates an artist's home, dressed to impress.

Published May 4, 2007

Walking into Diane Piccola's colorful, art-filled house for the first time is like discovering a really good movie or book by accident:

The reason?

Piccola is a gourd artist with Hollywood special effects skills.

Her 2- and 3-foot art dolls are made from exotically named gourds and costumed in her hand-batiked and dyed clothes. Their intricately painted heads sprout jute hair or turbans or babushkas. They look to be waving their arms in the air, shaking tambourines and fluttering their scarves.

Piccola makes gourd jewelry, too, with miniature versions of her soulful dolls masquerading as pendants on silk cord.

Abstract and highly creative, the jewelry once caught the attention of a major woman's clothing chain, though she's never sold out to corporate interests.

"It's a spiritual thing, it just comforts me when I work on them, " says Piccola, who recently moved to Hillsborough County from Vista, Calif., and whose work has been featured on HGTV's Carol Duvall Show. Her work is also featured in the upcoming book The Making of Gourd Dolls and Spirit Figures, scheduled for release in July.

At her home and studio in the Riverside Club Golf and Boating Resort in Ruskin, she has transformed the front room into a warm and sophisticated art gallery. The 1, 800-square-foot, three bedroom, two-bath manufactured home looks out over a small lake and an 18-hole golf course.

"They call me G.G. - for golf and gourds, " jokes Piccola, an avid golfer along with her husband, Billy, a career musician and singer who performs regularly at one of the two community clubhouses.

The couple chose the development - 30 minutes from the heart of Brandon - "because it's full of baby boomers living out their second childhood, " Billy said with a laugh.

They were also attracted because of its relatively close proximity to Bradenton, where Piccola's daughter owns an Ace hardware store and popular gift shop. Affordability didn't hurt, either. Manufactured homes in the community, nestled in a harbor at the mouth of the Little Manatee River, start at $150, 000.

"I could buy three houses here for what I sold my home for in California, " Piccola says of her local taupe and white-trimmed cottage with crown molding, a large kitchen and a comfortable screened porch. "Except for the cost of groceries down here, the cost of living really is cheaper in Florida."

The couple bought the house in Riverside in 2006, after putting down a $5, 000 deposit and selling their townhouse in a golf-course community in California.

They promptly built an art studio next to the porch, a small, tightly organized space with room for Piccola's paints, brushes and beads, as well as electric tools for sanding and cleaning her gourds. She buys them from Gourdgeous Farm in Bradenton.

"I brought six wardrobe cases of gourds with me from California because I didn't know when I would find another farm, " she says, noting that she makes her dolls from 26 varieties of gourds, which have names like "cave man's club, " "Indonesian bottle" and "tobacco box."

Gourds dominate the Piccola home. Undecorated varieties are arranged into still-lifes on the front and back porches. Those that have been transformed into works of art fill the interior of the house.

Piccola decorated using rustic colors that evoke the landscape of the California desert, adorning the walls with original works by artists she has befriended along the way. Furnishings include a wormwood armoire and farm table from Mexico that she has blended with gem-toned sofas and a pair of ultra-modern leather recliners with matching ottomans. The contemporary lamps were made by her cousin, a professional lamp designer with work in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Piccola's work was recognized in childhood - at age 12 her paintings and drawings were displayed at the Detroit Museum of Art. But she began making her gourds just seven years ago, shortly after retiring from a career in hotel sales and marketing.

"I've always been an artist, " she explains. "I feel like I was born with a paintbrush in my hands."

At 72, she looks 50, due in part to staying active as an avid golfer, a habit she picked up during her sales career at luxury resorts. "I had to learn, " she explains.

Today, making gourd dolls keeps her effusively happy. She feels a spiritual connection so deep, she says, that she sometimes has a hard time letting go of them.

Watch for her work at juried art shows this fall in the Tampa Bay area.

Right now she's working on a series of gourd dolls that will look like mermaids. She's also making gourd fish. Both are a tribute to her newfound life in Florida, a life she says is so much fun "that I had to keep myself in from golf this week so that I could keep up with my gourds."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.