Artist Freddie Oakley of Burnet holds one of hundreds of gourds she has turned into works of art over the past 30 years. The painted section in the front of this piece is removable, cut out with a palm-size jigsaw. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman
She’s known as “The Gourd Lady” among family and friends, a fact made evident as soon as she opens the front door to her Burnet home. Freddie Watson Dunlap Oakley has filled every wall, tabletop, display case, dish cupboard, and bureau with adroitly decorated gourds.
“I do fine art gourds,” Oakley said. “These are not craft gourds.”
Craft gourds are those turned into birdhouses, feeders, or other objects for everyday use. Oakley’s gourds resemble Native American or Southwestern pottery, a theme also reflected in her watercolor paintings of tipis on the American plains.
“Everything I do is Southwest,” she said. “My mother was full-blood Apache. I was born in my grandparents’ house in Santa Fe (New Mexico). We lived with them when I was itty-bitty. They didn’t even speak English.”
Oakley first learned to paint with oils on canvas. She spent several years working in “the Roundhouse,” New Mexico’s Capitol building in Albuquerque. That’s when she began painting landscapes on feathers.
“I was living in a hotel for two (legislative) sessions and realized I can’t just sit here and watch TV every night!” Oakley said. “I prayed, ‘Oh, Lord, give me something I can do.’ I stepped out of my car, and there was a beautiful feather on the ground.”
After her first husband died in 1992, Oakley took a trip to Ruidoso, New Mexico, with a friend. On a whim, she sat in on a gourd demonstration.
“I had no idea what a gourd was or anything about gourds,” she said.
She painted her first one at that demonstration and was hooked.
Twice widowed, Oakley moved nine years ago to Meadowlakes from San Antonio. Before that, she was in Kermit, Texas, where she taught art and raised her children.
She has carted her tools, supplies, and artwork with her on every move, keeping much of it in storage units. After marrying Roy Oakley in 2013, the couple found a sprawling one-story home in Burnet big enough to fully display her art and provide the workspace necessary to create more. As she still teaches art, including her specialities of watercolor, jewelry making, and gourds, she needed space for a classroom as well.
Her Native American roots shine through in almost every painting, necklace, or gourd she has created over three decades. Her collection includes Native American water sippers, small drums, figurines, masks, rattles, and vessels that resemble pottery.
Walls not covered with paintings or gourds are filled with family photos. In a long hallway, one wall is devoted to pictures from her side of the family, while the other wall contains pictures of Oakley’s family.
The gourds are light and easy to come by but hard to prepare. They come covered in mud from the fields and have a protective outer coating that needs to be scraped off by hand. She soaks them in bleach water for hours, sometimes overnight, to clean them and kill any spores or mold. She then picks them up one by one and studies them.
“I have to decide how I’m going to cut them, or embellish them, or whether I’ll paint them the way they are,” she said. “Some I look at for months and can’t decide what to do with them, but some I know immediately.”
Using a tiny jigsaw that fits in the palm of her hand, Oakley sometimes carves out shapes and figures or tops. Golf ball-size attachments with rough, spiked surfaces are used to clean out the insides.
“I just experiment and do,” she said. “I learn as I go.”
Oakley’s work is not in a gallery or sold online (gourds are too delicate to ship, she said), but she is willing to sell. Family members often take home pieces with them after a visit — for free, of course.
“They’ll come and see something that’s been there forever, but they’ve just seen it for the first time and have to have it,” she said.
Which opens up space in the house for yet another new creation, already underway in Oakley’s sun-drenched studio.
“I love doing this,” she said. “It’s addictive to me. I just really, really love it.”