An Unconventional Canvas

by Liz Scoville

A Peoria artist transforms dried gourds into intricate masterpieces.

Mike Shular’s home is adorned with traces of his lifelong artwork: marble/fork sculptures, colorful maze drawings, smooth wooden carvings and dynamic pieces of gourd art—the medium for which he is most renowned. After more than 40 years living and creating art in Peoria, Shular has never stopped developing his craft, always working to keep his aesthetic wits sharp. Today, he continues to make a name for himself through his intricate and imaginative works.

Ambition for Design
Shular’s artistic journey began early in life. As a child in Knoxville, Tennessee, he spent time exploring wood carving, learning the tricks of the trade with his grandfather as his guide.

“It started when I was six years old and my grandfather gave me a pocket knife,” Shular explains. “He would show me how to make whistles out of tree limbs. He was also making wooden toys, and I got into that. I’d be sitting on the couch watching TV, and I’d take a big log or stick and carve them out. I went to the library and got a book on wood carving and started making [wooden] balls and cages.”

As he grew older, Shular realized he had a knack for artistic crafting, and decided to pursue mechanical design as a career. He eventually moved to central Illinois to take a factory position at Caterpillar, and later landed a process control position at Diamond-Star Motors in Bloomington-Normal. His drawing abilities, he says, played a key part in snagging that job.

“They had this test where they put a chair up on the table [to draw],” Shular recalls. “I stayed for the full 45 minutes and drew it excellently. They gave me an interview, and I got hired.”

Shular worked at Diamond-Star for a year and a half, guiding parts and assembly delivery while helping to draft company safety posters on the side. He then returned to Caterpillar and spent several years in a variety of areas, including a machine repair apprenticeship. Over time, he was able to move into a role he had been pursuing for a while: graphic design.

“I got into a graphics position and worked there for seven years,” Shular explains. “Then I changed buildings [on Caterpillar’s campus] and got into… doing computer-aided graphics.” He worked in that area before retiring from Caterpillar last October.

From Forks to Gourds
As he spent a career building his design and graphics skills, Shular never let his artwork fall by the wayside. One of his hobbies was fork art: the creation of mini-sculptures using the common kitchen fork. “I saw a guy making fork art out of silverware,” he recalls. “I liked it, and went to the flea markets and was buying silver forks.”

With the forks in hand, Shular cold-bends them with protected pliers (A hot iron, he says, would turn the silver a permanent and undesirable blue), shaping them to his liking. With their curved handles and curled tines zigging and zagging in alternate directions, the original contours are hardly recognizable in the final figure. Sometimes he uses a drill press to punch holes in the forks; others he polishes off with strategically placed, hand-blown marbles of varying sizes and colors.

Shular discovered gourd art on a road trip to Tennessee about ten years ago. “I stopped at the Kentucky Artisan Center,” he explains. “I saw these people [with] gourds… doing cutouts with a handsaw. And I didn’t like the shape of the cut—[They] were flat.”

Inspired to create the cuts he preferred, Shular bought a few gourds—pre-dried and pre-baked, to avoid rotting—and began to experiment with pin his basement studio. Also known as “woodburning,” pyrography involves the use of heated instruments to burn lines and shading into wood canvases, creating images of differing depths and detail. Using a hot iron, Shular creates detailed shapes and patterns ranging from fall leaves to berries to coral reefs, and even fish skeletons. As he honed his skills, Shular found himself developing a smooth process for each new piece. “I draw the design, then I burn it in with a hot iron, and then I put the detailing in.”

That involves the application of inks and dyes, which gives the gourds a dynamic mix of colors, making his designs “pop” and bringing the whole piece together. The result looks less like a gourd, and more like a two-dimensional canvas wrapped around a three-dimensional sphere. “I paint on [the inks] and let them dry overnight,” Shular adds. “Then I put on a coat of tung oil, which seals the inks and doesn’t add thickness.”

The process is deliberate and methodical, so design and production can be time-consuming. A smaller gourd, he says, can require 30 to 40 hours of diligent work, while a larger piece can take up to a month and a half to finish. In addition to the lengthy production process, gourd art can be fairly expensive, depending on the cost of supplies. “I was lucky to get a really good job,” he adds, “because that’s where I get the money to do this.”

What’s Meant to Be
Today, Shular has for the most part left fork art behind, focusing primarily on his gourd art for both sale and exhibition. His work is on display at Exhibit A Gallery in Peoria Heights, and he takes custom requests for particular gourd sizes and designs. This September, he will once again be a featured artist at the Peoria Art Guild’s Fine Art Fair, and he’s currently building up inventory for the event, which draws thousands to Peoria’s riverfront each year.

Shular says he relishes the satisfaction of seeing his imagination take shape, his labors of love evolving into finished works of art. “I can take something and make it extreme—put my spin on it.” And though he sometimes feels moments of exhaustion or burnout, he has no intentions of slowing down any time soon. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he explains. “I’ve been an artist all my life. And [like] my mom says, ‘This is what is meant to be!’” a&s

To learn more about Mike Shular’s artwork, visit mikeshulargourdart.com. Find him at the Peoria Art Guild’s 55th annual Fine Art Fair, taking place September 24-25, 2016, on the Peoria Riverfront, and at Exhibit A Gallery, 4607 N. Prospect Road in Peoria Heights.

Subscribe to Peoria Magazines

Add new comment