Gourd artist to open show at San Juan College

Mike Easterling
Artist Lona Warne will have her first solo show when an exhibition of her work with gourds opens this weekend at San Juan College.

FARMINGTON — One day approximately five years ago, Lona Warne found herself walking outside the art gallery at the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus.

Warne, a retired businesswoman who was taking art classes at the college, and another passerby were looking in a window and admiring the work hanging on the gallery walls.

“Someday,” Warne said impulsively, “I’m going to be in this gallery.”

“Oh, this gallery is for professionals only,” the stranger said haughtily.

Warne, who only recently had begun working in a Southwestern style that incorporated gourds, easily could have let herself be crushed by that offhand remark. Instead, she said, that comment "lit a fire under me."

This weekend, the Farmington artist will see her vow from five years ago reach fruition. Warne’s “From This Earth and by These Hands” exhibition opens at the gallery as part of the San Juan College Fine Arts Committee Invitational. A portion of the sales from her work will go to the committee, which funds scholarships for SJC students seeking art-related degrees and other programs at the college.

Warne received a call from a committee member in May, asking her if she’d be willing to serve as the featured artist for the group’s annual show at the college. Warne, whose work had never been featured in a solo exhibition, could scarcely believe what she was hearing.

A gourd and mixed-media work from the "Petroglyph People" series by artist Lona Warne is pictured Saturday in her Farmington studio.

“Oh, my gosh, I would love to do that,” she said, even after learning she’d only have five months to prepare the work for the exhibition.

True to her nature — Warne had spent years working in the oil and gas business, and before that she had run her own successful company in Gallup that probed the ground for uranium — she approached the show in a methodical fashion. She put herself on a schedule for finishing new pieces, and by Sept. 1, she had completed close to four dozen of them.

“I’m a really organized person,” she said.

Warne will round out her exhibition with a couple of older pieces, but she said 98 percent of the artwork featured in the show will be new. As her first solo exhibition, the show is special to her, and she hopes to make a splash.

“I was able to create some of the bigger gourd art I’ve always wanted to do, incorporating some of the special things I’ve been saving,” she said.

Over the last several years, Warne has worked with gourds of all sizes, but this exhibition will spotlight several larger ones. She paints Southwest designs on many of them and incorporates others into paintings on canvas or hard board to produce mixed-media work.

Lona Warne honed her skills as a gourd artist with many years of study under Robert Rivera.

Warne said she has created a wall mask for the show that is 6 feet, 8 inches in diameter. The bushel basket gourd she incorporated into the piece came from a farm in Casa Grande, Ariz., and was the second-largest gourd ever grown there. Some of her other pieces feature snake gourds or canteen gourds.

Warne said she fell in love with gourds the first time she saw one of them used in a piece of art. That was during a 1998 visit to the Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, Colo., which was featuring the work of gourd artist Robert Rivera. Warne was so taken with Rivera’s work, she became one of his students and studied under him for many years, eventually becoming one of his certified instructors.

“He’s just got the most creative mind,” she said. “The artwork that comes out of him is so amazing.”

Warne said Rivera manages to spend time with each of his students, offering lots of encouragement and sharing his secrets for working with gourds. That’s not something a lot of artists are willing to do, she said.

“They don’t want to create their own competition,” she said.

Warne said one of the proudest moments of her life came when she received Rivera’s notes for a piece she had crafted during one of his classes.

Lona Warne's "From This Earth," a gourd and mixed-media work inspired by Hopi culture, will be featured in an exhibition of her work opening this weekend at San Juan College.

“That was the day he told me he was so proud of me,” she said. “He wrote, ‘See you at the top.’”

Gourds are not a medium that most artists choose to work in, and Warne said they come with their own set of challenges. First, and most obvious, is the fact that they are round, making them difficult to paint. Warne said the gourds become hard as wood after they ripen, and she often winds up cutting them for her pieces, using a variety of saws to get the angle or shape she wants.

“I have more power tools than my husband,” she said, laughing.

Warne said she also has to wear a mask and work outdoors while crafting her gourd artwork. The gourds have skin molds that can be inhaled easily, and that makes them a little dangerous, she said.

Not everyone responds to her work, Warne said, but those who do seem to enjoy its unusual nature.

Lona Warne says she finds Southwestern art to be spiritual, and she's happy that her work as resonated with buyers in countries around the world.

“I think we’re drawn to things from nature,” she said. “These are the people that just recognize the harmony between nature and art. It pulls you in.”

Warne finds a good deal of spirituality in Southwest art, and she’s pleased that her art — which reflects those sensibilities — has been purchased by people from such countries as England, Canada and Australia who at first blush would appear to have little reason to relate to that style.

“It really validates my work and shows me I’m on the right path,” she said.

As she prepared for the opening of her exhibition this weekend, Warne continued to reflect on her long-held goal of showing her work at the SJC campus gallery and how elated she was she received the invitation from the Fine Arts Committee to do just that.

“That day had come, and I was pretty proud,” she said, explaining that when she offers advice to aspiring artists, she always shares that story with them. “If (you) hear negative comments about (your) art, don’t let it crush you. Let it inspire you.”

This red gourd wall mask will be among the works by Lona Warne featured in her exhibition opening this weekend at San Juan College.

Warne’s show will remain on display at the gallery through Oct. 21.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Opening reception for artist Lona Warne’s “From This Earth and by These Hands” exhibition as part of the San Juan College Fine Arts Committee Invitational

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30

Where: Henderson Fine Arts Center gallery on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

For more information: Call 505-566-3464