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Peruvian Sisters Can Turn A Gourd Into An $800 Objet D'Art

Standing in their backyard in Cochas Grande, Peru, Katya and Blanca Cantos, hold the fruit of their labor. The gourd at left shows scenes from a potato harvest. The just-started gourd at right will tell the story of an ancestor's epic trek.

Their gourds tell a story — and earn them a living. That gourd in the photo — the one on the left? It is covered with miniature pictures of a potato harvest in Peru. There's even a wee burro hauling the day's crop.

That gourd will sell for around $800.

The Canto sisters — Katya, 29, and Blanca, 24 — are experts in the folk art of decorating gourds. Their father taught them when they were growing up in the village of Cochas Grande, Peru. Katya began learning when she was 8. It took her four years to master the art of creating finely detailed scenes or bold designs. I interviewed the sisters at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is all about Peru this year.

Did your dad force you to take lessons? I ask.

"I liked it," Katya replies. "I asked him to teach me."

But gourd decoration is a disappearing art. "You have to really want it, and you have to be persistent," says Katya. "With all the tiny details, most kids get bored."

You also have to have a lot of time. Using carving tools to create the images and a heated stick to burn in colors, Katya might spend two months on a complicated design.

Amazed at how small the images are, I ask if she uses a magnifying glass? "No," she says. "But my dad does now."

The shape of the gourd helps the sisters decide how to decorate it. "This one," Katya says, holding up a slender gourd with a graceful neck, "could be a bird."

A big round one would be suited for what she calls a "world view" — a spiraling series of scenes that tell a story. The gourd in the photo above, the one at right that Blanca is holding, has the beginnings of a story from one of the sisters' ancestors — an epic journey from his tiny town to the capital city. It's kind of like a graphic novel on a gourd.

Their next project is decorating a gourd with scenes of their adventures in Washington, D.C., where they were thrilled to be part of the festival. Says Blanca: "It gives the tradition a value."

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