New Virtual Exhibit – Marty McConnaughey: Immerse Yourself

By Krishna Adams, Director of Visual Arts, Craft, Media, and Design –

Immerse Yourself

Online Artist Talk with Marty McConnaughey

East Tennessee artist, Marty McConnaughey is the creator of our current virtual exhibition, Immerse Yourself, running through June 2, 2023. Her unique sculptures incorporate found natural objects to create surreal works, grounded in Nature.

Marty McConnaughey

“What do you feel when you are surrounded by nature? Is it balance, where everything works together to bring you peace? Does it stop you in your tracks for a moment so that you can experience what may happen next? When a gentle breeze rustles through the trees, do you see all the subtle changes that are happening before your eyes? The power of nature is one of God’s gifts.

It makes me want to breathe everything in and embrace the journey it offers. I become completely immersed in the entire process of developing unique designs from the simplest of materials. I love to create raw, yet refined pieces of art that will draw you in, challenge you to take a moment, to look a little deeper, and to enjoy the quietness that nature offers. Open your heart today, as you explore my work, take a breath, and immerse yourself.” – McConnaughey

Why gourds and pine needles? McConnaughey believes it was divine inspiration. She spent years expressing herself through portraiture work and paintings of departed pets. At some point, she realized her work was not unique, so she asked for guidance, and on a trip to Michigan in 2011, she found her muse.

Upon visiting her brother, Dale in Howell, Michigan, he informed her that a field was full of gourds nearby. Thinking she could harvest a few to use as gifts, they set off to pick the field. Then, a few months later, while waiting for the gourds to dry, she visited her sister, Lois, in Hernando, Florida. Her sister took her to a forested area that had been recently timbered. Not to let an opportunity go to waste, they set out to quickly bundle piles of long pine needles. With some internet research, a photocopied book on gourds by Helen Martin, and a sense of what might be possible, McConnaughey began creating the first of her altered gourds. Months later, she entered a show to exhibit and hopefully sell the pieces, she came away not only winning best of show, but she also had a complete sell-out of her work. To see some of her enchanting gourd sculptures, view the exhibition here.

With her research, McConnaughey began building a process of cultivating the seasoned gourds. Working on five gourds at once, they are studied for weak spots and sanded with 4 different grits of sandpaper, all the while trying to preserve roughly 90% of the viable sections of each gourd. She then makes color decisions for the shell that will reveal the individual beauty of each piece; she also plots areas that will be drilled or carved. She will don a mask, remove the seeds, and scrape out the interior membrane. She cuts parts of the gourd with her trusted Foredom drill and collection of power saws. When adding an image to the surface, she will burn the image into the gourd exterior before bringing the gourd into the house to be painted. The gourd may be painted or stained multiple times for the right color. Next, creating a finished piece involves waxing, burnishing, and buffing the gourd to create a smooth and shiny surface. At this point, the sewing and coiling of pine needles begin. Each gourd takes an enormous amount of preparation and creation time.

When it comes to coiling, she uses pine needles and rotates between the vanilla-scented and textured Tennessee sweet grass and the smoother, less textured Florida sweet grass. The needles and grass must be dry and between 8-12 inches long. The needles and grass may be hand-dyed or left natural depending upon the sculpture. Once they are prepared, McConnaughey will spend hours working on the coiling process late into the evening. She can fully immerse herself in her art through loving support from her husband.

Flamboyant, 2020, hand-dyed and painted pine needles, waxed Irish linen thread, 15 x 24 x 24 inches

Always striving to learn more, a few years ago, McConnaughey attended a class taught by pine needle basketmaker Clay Burnette, at Arrowmont School of Art and Craft in Gatlinburg. She came away from the class, putting her own spin on how to make a tri-stand using pine needles. An example of the tripod design can be seen in Flamboyant. When passing along advice to up-and-coming artists, McConnaughey advises them to be “true to yourself. Art is so subjective; you just can’t try to create someone else’s work. Create what you enjoy doing. Work every day to keep your creative mind active.”

“I love to transport nature into my work. My walks have become a hunt for pinecones, acorns, tree branches and driftwood, I harvest sweet grass and Iris leaves from my property. The addition of antlers, turquoise, jasper or agates add a spark to many of my designs.” – McConnaughey

The Open Portal, 2023, mica lined gourd, pine needle coiling, fir root ball, filbert branch, 9 x 15 x 10 inches

When people learn about the gourd sculptures, she will often be gifted feathers, antlers, and other objects recovered from nature to incorporate into her creations. Lately, as seen in The Open Portal, she has been experimenting with using small, thin mica sheets in her work. These hand-cleaved slivers and thin flakes are then adhered to the gourd interior in a mosaic style, giving the final art piece a soft shimmer and dimension.

Her gourd sculptures have won awards at the state, national and international levels and have been represented in National Parks, galleries, and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. Continuing to love creating movement in her pieces, today McConnaughey grows her own Tennessee Sweet Grass to coil. As long as her hands stay flexible, she will continue this journey and exploration in gourd art. Her next experimentation will be the addition of paper bark to a gourd, creating an all-natural picture.

Future plans for McConnaughey include potentially writing a book to help keep the gourd craft alive. She is also interested in participating in a blog with her daughter about gourds. Find out more about McConnaughey’s work here.

Don’t forget to RSVP for the online artist talk with Marty McConnaughey on Friday, April 28 at 11am Central. RSVP Here!