By Laura Hill
Jane Carter Buis loves to carve and paint her fanciful gourds way out in the Outback. But don’t expect an Aussie accent or a drawling “G’day” from this accomplished artist. Her Outback is the porch behind her Morristown home – and the birthplace of her unique Afro-Lachian art.
What is Afro-Lachian?
Buis – whose striking masks, animal figures and decorative pieces made from gourds and wood have earned her a growing following in Tennessee – explains the name this way:
“My own background is African-American, Cherokee and Caucasian, so when I was getting started in art I asked my sister-in-law to come up with a name that reflected all that. She said ‘Afro-Lachian.’ It kind of says it all.”
Not a Born Artist
Buis says nothing in her background pointed her toward an artist’s life. She is the youngest of five children and the only girl – a self-proclaimed “big old tomboy” who grew up in rural Jefferson, Tennessee. After earning an associate’s degree in horticulture at Walters State Community College, she raised her children and worked in local factories.
A second marriage to “the love of my life,” Ralph Buis, led her to art 15 years ago.
“Everyone in Ralph’s family is talented – all four brothers and a sister do something artistically, and so does his mother,” says Buis. “They all said, ‘You can’t just sit here; we’ve got to find you something to do.’ They were so encouraging and supportive.” On a fateful trip to a yard sale one day, she admired and bought three little carved gourds. Soon, she was creating her own gourd art.
“I had nobody else to teach me how to do it, so I experimented,” Buis laughs, remembering her early work. “I set the first couple on fire when I tried burning in a design. The smell was just horrible, and I’ve never done it again.”
Turning Gourds into Works of Art
Now Buis contemplates a gourd, turning it over and studying it until the form and design inherent in each become clear to her. Sometimes a design from nature will call out to her immediately and she will finish a piece in hours, but more often the process takes days, weeks or even months.
When an idea does emerge, she uses anything from an emery board to an electric rotary tool to etch a drawing into the gourd, finishing the design with paints mixed by hand to achieve the African palette she prefers. Some designs are beaded with inexpensive beads Buis finds at yard sales, or embellished with “hair” made from rope from the local hardware store.
The results range from small boxes and imaginative animals to life-size masks and large wall hangings, many of which have been exhibited at the Oak Ridge Museum of Art, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and major art and craft shows around the state.
“I don’t think I’ll ever make a living off my artwork – it’s just something I was blessed with,” says Buis. “My biggest hope is just that people see it. And that they see that it’s about my Afro-Lachian heritage.”
Gonzo for Gourd Art?
If you like Jane Carter Buis’ gourd art, check out our article on another Tennessee artist who crafts gourd creations.