Out of Her Gourd - A Local Artisan Discovers a Captivating Medium in Arizona

by Jean Van Kleek

Why would any farmer plant 30 acres of something that will be ugly, uneatable, twisted, and have no discernible value when it is harvested?

If you wonder about this just ask Mary Anne Atkins and the hundreds of artists, often snowbirds, who migrate to Arizona and California every winter to get relief from our Alberta winters.

It wasn’t until the Atkins made their first stop at the Wuertz Gourd farm in Casa Grande, Arizona that Mary Anne’s heart just jumped and her imagination went wild as she viewed the first of dozens of crates of strangely shaped, mold-covered objects that filled the yard with this odd crop.

A new surface to decorate! Virtually unbreakable, inexpensive, and easy to pack around. Heaven! This object could be sawed, drilled, glued, or embellished. It could be a planter, a birdhouse, a doll, a reptile - a thing of beauty that an artistic, creative mind could enjoy forever.

Since her first trip to Arizona, Mary Anne has been captivated by the endless possibilities within the almost indestructable gourd. She has created inlaid planters and bowls, life-like people, desert scenes and mountain wilderness habitats. She can turn a round, plain ball gourd into a garden and a twisted mess into a formidable viper.

Using scrapers and dremels, a vision becomes reality. When asked how she decides what something will become this artist replies, ‘I watch the pieces I am interested in. I turn them over and over, put them on my coffee table or floor and eventually they tell me what I should do with them. It’s fantastic!”

In case you got the idea that she has always been obsessed with the arts, Mary Anne Atkins will agree, but her path has been much more diverse than that.

She started her crafting journey as a young woman living on a farm with husband Bruce and two small children, Cameron, age seven, and Amy, age two. She began with macrame, moved on to ceramic arts, acrylic painting and then a long pause while at watercolours - all of which she began teaching in the nearby community of Warner, AB.

Mary Anne holds an Honors Certificate in Business Administration and was owner/operator of her own store “Smiles Unlimited” in Milk River, near the family farm for almost 13 years. When the couple sold their farm and moved to Coaldale to consider their future, she felt very lucky to be able to sell her business - building and all, as well.

The Atkins had only been living in Coaldale a short while when Mary Anne accepted the position of Executive-Director of the Southern Alberta Epilepsy Association in Lethbridge, where she worked for almost three years. During this time Mary Anne began volunteering with the Lethbridge Police Victim Services unit as an advocate for victims of crime and tragedy.

Mary Anne shares a memorable story of an incident that took place while volunteering at the Alberta Hot Air Balloon festival in the Lethbridge river-bottom. A balloon that carried Mary Anne and two others hit a power line, knocking out power to some south Lethbridge areas and violently tipping the basket so that people watching from the ground couldn’t believe they would be able to hold on. Eventually a shot of flame was able to pull the basket high enough to get over the wires but continued to rock for some time. When they finally bumped their way to the ground all three went back to their volunteer duties.

By 1997, Mary Anne reluctantly resigned her position with the Epilepsy Association and her volunteering when she and husband, Bruce, bought the “Hitchin’ Post,” a small campground in Wasa Lake B.C. This began a new adventure for Mary Anne and Bruce as they ran their new year-round operation that also included the town post office, convenience store, mini-golf and liquor store.

You would think that running a multi-faceted business would leave little time for much else, but Mary Anne has always found a way incorporate and release her creative side into whatever adventures she and Bruce discover. During the five years the couple ran their new venture, Mary Anne was able to carve out an area for a small gift shop featuring her hand-crafted items and taught both adults and children Acrylic and Watercolor painting in the wintertime.

The Atkins grew to love the area around Ta Ta Creek and in 2002, sold the campground and began construction of a home on an acreage there.

Shortly after the Atkins settled into their new home on the acreage, the Kimberley RCMP detachment were in the process of incorporating a Victim Services office for their community. With her usual single-mindedness, Mary Anne earned the Executive-Director position and took up basically where she had left off five years previous in Coaldale. In her spare time, she renewed her love of arts and crafts.

This was also the year that Mary Anne entered the Wal-Mart Canada-wide Home Decorating contest, winning first prize. Her project was revamping an old coffee table with a particular marbleizing technique using Walmart supplies. The project was featured in that summer’s issue of the Walmart magazine along with their congratulations. Although she creates out of a passion for the arts, it was an honour for Mary Anne to receive national recognition for this project.

When medical problems three years into her position made it necessary for Mary Anne to leave her job, the couple took a long-awaited trip to the U.S. with their camping trailer and time on their hands. It was during this trip Mary Anne found the Wuertz Gourd farm at their destination of Casa Grande, Arizona.

By 2017, Bruce, Mary Anne and their two dogs, Cleopatra and Angel, returned to Lethbridge from BC, where their children and grandchildren welcomed them along with the many large bags of dirty- cleaned- and half-finished gourd projects that share their home.

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The common thread throughout all Mary Anne’s life travels, adventures and re-locating, is her art. Her art always finds a way to present itself in new ways and finds a home in whatever environment surrounds this talented, multi-faced woman. Her artwork is positive and joyful, as is her personality. Whether it’s through volunteering or artistic expression, Mary Anne thrives on making a difference in the lives of those around her, and the Art of Life is one of the most important mediums this artist has encountered and embraced.

For more info on gourds or Mary Anne’s latest projects email: mbatkins@hotmail.com

Jean Van KleekComment