October 2006
Featured Articles

D.A. Ray: The Gourd Man Not Just Birdhouses Anymore

 
  D.A. Ray developed his own “unique birdhouse” by combining his gourd designs with that of a scarecrow to create his “gourdheaded birdhouse scarecrows.”
By Grace Smith

Fall is upon us and soon homes and businesses will be decorated with festive décor like scarecrows, hay bales and pumpkins. However, over the past five years one North Alabama man has found a way to use one autumn ornament all year long.

We’ve all seen gourds used as simplistic birdhouses, but have you ever seen them used as Halloween masks, toy airplanes or even scarecrows? As unbelievable as it may sound, D.A. Ray of Trinity has found hundreds of unusual creations for this inanimate object.

Ray said he has always enjoyed carving wood and before his retirement he would whittle figurines during his work breaks from stray wood he found lying around the facilities.

Over time, Ray said he began incorporating his woodwork with other items. One example was a miniature turtle he made from a walnut shell and a petite woodcarving.

“I see things other people don’t see,” Ray said. “When I saw half of that shell, I saw a turtle shell, so I whittled a body to go underneath.”

His creativity and wood carving incorporations led him to his “gourd artwork.” He would find a gourd and envision it to be a certain object, carve wooden images to complete the body and then paint it to bring his creation to life.

In some of his earliest work, Ray transformed gourds into geese and swans. These early waterfowl creations opened the door to a variety of other gourd art forms.

Now there aren’t many things Ray can’t make - from bunny rabbits to Santa Clauses to miniature cars and airplanes. Each item is individually hand crafted and Ray takes care to mind even the most minute detail.
 
One of D.A. Ray’s other activities revolves around his bluegrass band Crosswalk. The members are (from left) Stan Drinkard, guitar & harmony; Mark Drinkard, banjo; June Ray, upright bass; Laura Lee Ray, mandolin & vocals and D.A. Ray, guitar & vocals.  

“If you are gonna do something, you might as well do it right,” Ray said.

Tediously crafting each item gives him the opportunity to use his personality for each gourd creation. Ray even names some of his artwork. For example, he made a tractor and called it a “Gourd-All” and an old car and called it a “Gordebaker.”

His creativity and wood carving incorporations led him to his “gourd artwork.” He would find a gourd and envision it to be a certain object, carve wooden images to complete the body and then paint it to bring his creation to life.

In some of his earliest work, Ray transformed gourds into geese and swans. These early waterfowl creations opened the door to a variety of other gourd art forms.

Now there aren’t many things Ray can’t make - from bunny rabbits to Santa Clauses to miniature cars and airplanes. Each item is individually hand crafted and Ray takes care to mind even the most minute detail.
 
  D.A. Ray sells almost 80 of his custom “gourdheaded birdhouses” each year.

“If you are gonna do something, you might as well do it right,” Ray said.

Tediously crafting each item gives him the opportunity to use his personality for each gourd creation. Ray even names some of his artwork. For example, he made a tractor and called it a “Gourd-All” and an old car and called it a “Gordebaker.”

Ray’s friends and colleagues began to notice his work and encouraged him to sell it at gourd shows. These shows gave Ray a market for his products and an incentive to develop more gourd artwork.

Ray has also found a way to incorporate his gourds with scarecrows. He said he was reading an article in Birds and Blooms magazine called “Your Unique Birdhouse” and his wheels began to turn.

“One afternoon we were playing music on the porch and we got to talking about how you never see scarecrows anymore,” he said.

At 2 a.m. the next morning he realized a way to develop his own “unique birdhouse.” He tried to go back to sleep, but he was so anxious to build his new birdhouse he couldn’t rest. So he got started on it right then.

“I got out of the bed at about 2 a.m. and my wife said, ‘What are you doing?’ I told her I had to go make a gourdheaded birdhouse,” Ray said. “She said, ‘A what?’ and I just told her, ‘Never mind, you’ll see.’”
That night his first “gourdheaded birdhouse scarecrow” was born. Now he sells almost 80 of the custom birdhouses each year.

Several of these scarecrows are displayed in his carport and Ray humorously explains how some of them are not necessarily attractive.
 
Ray humorously explains that some of his scarecrows are not necessarily attractive, but like family, “you love ‘em anyway.”  

“These are kind of like your family,” Ray said. “Some of them are hard to look at but you love ‘em anyway.”

Although he initially bought his gourds, he began growing them himself three years ago. Currently he has planted three acres of gourds producing six different varieties. His garden includes Martin and Ornamental gourds grown from seed his daughter, Dana, an AFC employee, purchased from the Co-op.

Ray explained how each variety of gourds has a different growing season, but he jokingly explained the secret to growing them.

“Growing gourds is a whole lot like making whiskey or dealing with your mother-in-law,” Ray said. “Work the ground, plant the seed and then forget about it. The more you fuss over it the less it will do.”

Gourds may be his specialty, but his work is not limited to them. Ray works with sweet gum balls and pinecones too. He will flatten sweet gum balls, dip each of them in colored paint, connect them to dowels and then they can be used for a flashy, creative floral arrangement. Ray has also discovered a method of transforming pinecones into miniature turkeys. After connecting those turkeys on dowels, they can be used in flower arrangements or simply to garnish a flowerbed or walkway.

Although the expertise of his work may suggest that Ray had always aspired to become an artist, his initial career ambitions were far from the hobby he now loves so much.

“I was going to be a meteorologist,” Ray said. “David Letterman was a meteorologist in Indianapolis back then and he made it so entertaining everyone wanted to tune in.”

He attended college at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, and although he didn’t major in Meteorology, he did minor in it. He chose Commercial Art as has major which may have primed him for his gourd artwork.

Eventually he went to work for General Motors and his career path led him to Alabama to work at the Delphi plant in Decatur.

Art is just one aspect of this man’s intensively active life. Ray is a Vietnam veteran, admitting he celebrated his 21st birthday ducked in the trenches of the Vietnam jungle. He is also a licensed auctioneer and a talented musician with his own bluegrass band. Ray said his group, Crosswalk, is about to record their first CD and he hopes to submit it to the local bluegrass station so his music can be aired. The band plays at church functions, nursing homes and sometimes for various charity functions.

If being an artist, a veteran, an auctioneer or a musician doesn’t work out for Ray, he certainly could pursue a career in comedy. His witty comebacks, non-stop jokes and slapstick shenanigans assure that any of Ray’s endeavors will leave his guests in constant laughter. Ray’s wife insists his humor never ends, even when he’s asleep.

“My wife tells me I talk in my sleep,” Ray said. “I said ‘that’s because you don’t listen to me when I’m awake.’”

Grace Smith is an AFC management services trainee.