Creative Journey of a Riverbowl

Gourd bowl by Serena Kovalosky
“Riverbowl III” by Serena Kovalosky. Artwork ©Serena Kovalosky. Photo credit:

EXCELLENT NEWS! I just finished Riverbowl III and am excited to announce the piece been acquired by The Folklife Center at Crandall Library in Glens Falls, NY for their collection. Thank you to Todd DeGarmo, Founding Director. I am celebrating this great honor!

It took me three months to finish the piece. As I was working on it, I decided to do something I’d never done since the beginning of my career – I wrote about each step of the creative process as the piece progressed and posted my progress on Facebook.

It was surprisingly enlightening for me since the creative process is not a logical, conscious act. I don’t think about it much, I just do it.

Here’s the full journal for Riverbowl III for all of you to enjoy!

October 21, 2021 – The Raw Gourd
The gourd I selected to create this “Riverbowl” is a very yummy, large bushel gourd that was grown at Wuertz Gourd Farm in Arizona. It’s over 12″ in diameter and 10″ high.

Raw gourd
Photography ©Serena Kovalosky

This gourd has a deep, ancient energy. All the beautiful natural markings will disappear when I clean the exterior surface. New and equally interesting markings are always found underneath!

October 25,  2021 – Cleaning and Carving
It was quite tempting to leave the gourd whole and I explored numerous options before taking the first cut, a simple act that is always quite unnerving. Cutting the gourd changes its integrity and I never know what it’s going to feel like until I start working with it.

Gourd interior with seeds
Photography ©Serena Kovalosky

This is the interior before cleaning, with seeds still inside. Opening a gourd is a bit like opening a gift on Christmas morning – you never know what you’ll find inside! The thickness of the gourd is apparent in this image as well as the white “lining” that needs to be removed. Cleaning the interior of the gourd is a huge task that require plenty of muscle to get it nice and smooth.

Gourd Interior - cleaned
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

November 2, 2021 – Carving the Interior
Although it’s not obvious in the photos, this piece has an ever-so-slight “wonk” to its shape – which I love – and the hole I cut plays with that shape.

Gourd cut and cleaned
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

Usually I just clean out the seeds and scrape/sand the interior and leave it smooth. But with this piece, I am inspired to carve the INSIDE, which I rarely do.

My Riverbowls are inspired by the many rivers I’ve encountered throughout my life. Since I never copy directly from nature, they are usually not focused on a particular river, but this Riverbowl is inspired by the Battenkill River which flows into upstate New York from Vermont as a tributary of the Hudson River. As a filmmaker, I spent an entire summer on the Battenkill with a film crew during the filming of In Search of Magical Waters – a film that follows the creative process of waterscape artist and flyfishing angler Adriano Manocchia. We intensely filmed the river (kudos to camera crew Kenny Hopkins and Jim McLaughlin) and often battled strong currents to get the right shot!

Camera crew crossing a river
Artful Vagabond camera crew crossing the Battenkill for “Magical Waters” film. Ted Patlen, Jim McLaughlin, Adriano Manocchia, Kenny Hopkins. Photography ©Serena Kovalosky

I also regularly visit calmer parts of the river for summertime swims, a powerful immersive experience that allows me to explore the river’s essence.

All of these experiences informed the decision to have movement on the interior of the Riverbowl…..strong movement that reflects the Battenkill’s currents. So I carved the river’s currents on the interior of the gourd. I was quite pleased with the result.

Carved interior of Riverbowl
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

Later I will gild the interior of the gourd with a brass alloy leaf, but the next steps with this piece will be to work on the exterior.

November 21, 2021 – Pyrography
As a sculptor, I rely on how a particular form feels in the body and that’s what comes out in my work. For my Riverbowls, I’ll walk along a river to explore the patterns of the currents, the stones in the riverbed and the way the sun reflects the moving water. These images enter my creative psyche and show up intuitively in my woodburned designs. My work relies on the essence of the experience rather than copying what I see.

I almost always begin the exterior design work for my gourd bowls at the bottom. It gives me a sense of the “foundation” of the piece.

Woodburning on bottom of Riverbowl
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

For the Riverbowls, I have to consider the Earth element before I think about the water. Without earth to contain the river and give it direction, the water would spill in all directions and dissipate. Water affects earth as well, carving deep over the years to form a riverbed.

So I take my pyrography tool and start with “earth” at the bottom of the gourd. Hundreds of tiny dots are woodburned onto the surface. Meditative. The tapping sound of the pyrography tip quickly hitting the gourd in succession to make the dots creates an echo which is amplified and travels because of the opening I made at the top of the gourd. My studio cats don’t seem to mind, but if I’m outside, my neighbor can hear me work!

December 3, 2021- Pyrography
The “earth” foundation always takes the longest – hundreds of tiny dots! – and is now complete. Next are the river stones. They are among my favorite part of any river – tumbled smooth by years of water flowing over and around them.

Riverbowl III - woodburning on bottom
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

Each stone has a story. I will often stand at the edge of the river and look straight down, exploring its many colorful “jewels” at the bottom and along the shoreline. Their smoothness is a testament to the effects of time, even on the most durable. Some have traveled many miles. A flooded river means more may continue their travels. They always look magical under the moving water. If I am attracted to one and bring it out of the water, it loses its shine as it dries in the sun. Some I keep because they speak to me, but I generally leave them where they belong. Maybe they will share their stories with others as well.

December 10, 2021 – Pyrography
After laying down the “riverbed foundation” of earth and stones, I am now ready to work on the actual subject of this artwork: the Water element. Specifically, River Water. This element is a personal one for me. I am a typical Pisces with a very fluid nature and an intense fascination with the flow of currents: those we can see (water) and those we can only sense (energy.) River water is always in motion. You will never see the same molecule of water again once it has flowed past you. There is a certain abundance to it; the water is always “new” and there is always more of it.

Riverbowl III in progress
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

The woodburned currents in my riverbowls are loose depictions of the movement of water. As I mentioned earlier, I do not copy nature. Instead, I start with a sense of the physical world and almost always end up in a more expansive realm as my pyrography tool travels across the surface of the gourd and I enter “the zone.” The micro as well as the macro are intermingled. So rather than literal depictions of moving river water, the lines will also reflect larger, global water currents as in major oceans, or perhaps the flow of energy. Often they resemble labyrinths. Always moving. This particular piece has A LOT of movement! The shape of the gourd and the position of the opening enhance my mark-making on its surface. Woodburning is done. Next comes my favorite part of all: gilding.

January 3, 2022 Gilding
For this Riverbowl, I wanted to capture the effect of looking down into the shallow part of the river with the sun shining through the water and lighting up the riverbed. Sparkly and magical! To achieve this, I had carved the interior of the gourd to resemble the flow of river currents. Now I’m ready to gild the interior with a brass alloy leaf to bring warmth to the interior and create the effect of the sun shining through the water.

Riverbowl III - Gilded Interior
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

It took a full booklet of brass leaf – 25 squares, each 5.5 inches x 5.5 inches – to cover the interior of the gourd, requiring a meticulous placement of each leaf and carefully pressing it into all the crevices. It’s very meditative work – which is why I never meditate.

This gold-colored alloy leaf, also called Dutch metal leaf, is a mixture of copper and zinc and comes in different shades of gold, depending on the percentage of copper in the alloy. The brass leaf I selected for this piece contains 85% copper and 15% zinc, giving it a nice, warm hue that’s not too orange and not as “lemony” as other alloy mixtures.

Riverbowl III - Gilded Interior detail
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

As it is not a pure gold, the gilding will age over many, many years. This is intentional to reflect the natural cycles of nature. Once the gilding adhesive is fully cured, the interior will be sealed with a varnish to offer maximum protection. Next I will pull out my REAL gold leaf for the final design work on the exterior of the Riverbowl.

January 19, 2022 – Gilding with Gold
A very special gold leaf was used for the final touches on the exterior of Riverbowl III. I had studied the technique of gold gilding with a professional gilder in London, England many years ago. She used a 22.7 carat gold leaf known as French JAUNE A.D. It has a beautiful, delicious deep gold color and I have used it in my work ever since. Unfortunately, it is no longer produced, so I only use it on special projects, like this one.

On the exterior of the gourd, which represents the surface of the river, I wanted to use this special gold to represent how the sun plays with the river by bouncing its rays off the moving water. I usually don’t refer to photos in my work as I prefer to draw on the “essence” of what I remember rather than copying directly from nature. But for this particular effect, I decided to consult several photographs I had taken of the Battenkill River. I found that sunlight generally appears as clusters of golden dots on the surface of the water, or sometimes as long, irregular lines, when it’s captured in a still photograph. So I applied the gilding size (adhesive) in round dots and long lines on the surface of the gourd, without knowing if the effect would be what I was after. I wouldn’t know until I had applied the gold leaf, so I started gilding and hoped for the best.

Gilding with gold
Photography and artwork ©Serena Kovalosky

The gilding effect turned out perfect. With the right lighting, it shimmers just like sunlight on water. So the creative work for “Riverbowl III” is finished! Now I have to wait for the gilding to cure before varnishing.

January 26, 2022 – Photographing the Work
A piece is never really finished until it is professionally photographed. Jim McLaughlin of McLaughlin Photography has photographed all of my gourdwork since 1998 and he always it makes it look spectacular! He’s the first person to see the finished work, and it’s always fascinating to see how he interprets the piece through the lens of the camera. He is a brilliant photographer.

Riverbowl III by Serena Kovalosky
“Riverbowl III” by Serena Kovalosky. Artwork ©Serena Kovalosky. Photo credit:
Riverbowl III by Serena Kovalosky
“Riverbowl III” by Serena Kovalosky. Artwork ©Serena Kovalosky. Photo credit:

Riverbowl III is now in the collection at The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, NY.

Folklife Center GF-Logo

Many thanks to Todd DeGarmo, Founding Director of The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library for making the acquisition possible.

Riverbowl III is currently on exhibit in the Research Room throughout 2022 as follows:

The Folklife Center at Crandall Library
251 Glen Street (bottom floor of the library)
Glens Falls, NY

Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 9am-noon and 1pm-7pm
Fri.-Sat. 9am-noon and 1pm-5pm
Closed Sundays and all federal holidays

Todd brilliantly curates an exceptional program of cultural offerings at The Folklife Center, from concerts to gallery exhibitions to talks and workshops. Always worth a visit!

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