The Nubla touch
Sig Nubla makes gourdcraft look easy
By Christopher Nyerges 03/26/2009
Sig Nubla showed me a beautiful bowl made from one half of an ornamental gourd. It was completely functional for eating his meals, but it was also a stunning work of art. I could hardly believe that it had been crafted by the hand of man. Symmetrical black lines and designs had been painstakingly burned into the gourd’s surface. After a careful examination, I asked, “How long did this take you?”
“About an hour to cut the gourd and clean and sand it,” he said, “and maybe another five hours to make the designs.”
He spoke as if it was a little thing, but Nubla, though he seems to master whatever he touches, is a modest man. He grew up in Manila, where he learned about survival skills of hunting, shelter, wild foods and crafts. By an early age — he came to the US at 19 and is now 38 — Nubla took most of these skills for granted. Now he throws himself into whatever project he is undertaking, whether it is weaving, bow-making or creating useful and beautiful gourds and bowls.
I assisted Nubla at one of his gourd-making classes held earlier this year in California’s Sequoia Forest at the annual Dirttime event.
Nubla is the kind of teacher we all wish we had when growing up: eager to answer any question (no question is too stupid) and always right there to lend a hand when we’re having difficulties.
Once each student selected a gourd, the first order of business was to cut it in about half. Nubla had each student lay the gourd sideways on the table, with a box set up right next to it. The student would hold a pencil horizontal on the top of the box and roll the gourd in order to draw the line where the gourd would be cut. This was a lot more difficult than it sounds. If you didn’t have any special tools, you could then just score the pencil line and keep scoring deeper and deeper until the two halves separated.
However, this wasn’t an entirely primitive event and students used hacksaws to make clean cuts — even so, not all the cuts were that clean or even. Then came the sanding; the edge had to be filed and sanded to make it smooth and just right. The outside was sanded to make it all smooth, and the inside was carefully scraped to make an even surface. Some students saved the seeds for planting later.
The edge of Nubla’s bowl had a little indent where he could easily hold his gourd with his thumb, or use the indent to rest his chopsticks.
At that point, the gourds were functional, but Nubla had his students decorate the bowls. The decoration served at least two purposes: It allowed students to learn the art of wood burning, and it made each bowl individually recognizable in a camp with dozens of similar bowls.
Using little nails stuck into pieces of doweling, the students heated the nails in the fire and began their artistic decorations. Though there are endless possibilities, Nubla showed students how to divide the bowl with three or four horizontal lines, and then further divide the working surface into quarters with vertical lines. With the outer surface of the gourds thus divided, it was much easier to burn symmetrical patterns onto their surface. Nubla calls this “geometric pyrography.”
Finally, Nubla had each student “leach” the gourd bowl by filling it with water, leaving it for up to 12 hours, and repeating this until there was no more bitter taste inside the bowl. Sometimes he coats the inside with olive oil or beeswax.
Most of the students fully completed their gourd bowl in two to four hours and then used them for meals during the week. The artistic touches that Nubla had people add to their gourds turned out to be akin to the mnemonic devices used by pre-literate people. At each meal, people admired each other’s gourds and commented on the distinctive symbols and lines on each one. No two were alike and each now carried a story.
Nubla teaches at the annual Winter Count, Rabbit Stick and Dirttime events. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, the author of "How to Survive Anywhere," and an occasional blogger of current events. He can be contacted via this paper or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.