"I've always been interested in the outdoors."
Dr. Merril McHenry is a professor, biologist, artist and world traveler. In his backyard sits the McHenry Museum of Natural History and Ethnology, which showcases animals and cultures he has studied and art he has created.
McHenry grew up in rural Cloud County on a farm filled with chickens, cows, dogs and cats.
"I've always been surrounded by nature," McHenry recalled. "As a kid, I was chasing butterflies. I found a company in New York that was buying butterflies for a nickel a piece when I was probably 10 or 12, so I would catch butterflies to sell to them so I could buy books."
When his school took a field trip to Goessel, the preteen was fascinated by the taxidermy work of Richard Schmidt.
"I've always been interested in the outdoors," McHenry said. "I started corresponding with [Schmidt] after we'd been down to see his little bird display on the farm."
He soon after found and completed a correspondence course on taxidermy. A few years later, McHenry found himself studying under Schmidt at Emporia State University, where he studied biology and art. He earned his doctorate in zoology from the University of Oklahoma after three years of waterfowl research in Manitoba, Canada.
McHenry taught biology at colleges in Illinois, Colorado, Kansas and Swaziland, spending 12 years at Central Christian College in McPherson. He traveled with students in the Virgin Islands, Europe, South Africa and Botswana.
"In Colorado, I saw pottery that looked like gourds and in Swaziland, I saw gourds that looked liked pottery," McHenry said.
Intrigued by this blend of nature and art, McHenry started experimenting with gourd carving, a hobby that has become more than a hobby since his retirement 10 years ago.
"I started getting involved in some of the gourd art festivals and shows," McHenry said. "There aren't many people in Kansas that I run into that do this sort of thing."
Gourd art is more popular in the southwest, where the drier climate and longer growing season produce thicker-walled gourds.
McHenry joined the American Gourd Society and entered his work in shows in Indiana, Missouri and Arizona.
"I had no idea how I would place," McHenry said.
The dozens of first-place ribbons pinned to his wall are a testament to his proficiency. McHenry is now a Certified Master Judge for the American Gourd Society and hosts quarterly gatherings for gourd artists from all over Kansas to meet in McPherson.
McHenry grows the gourds he carves in his garden or acquires them from local farmers or at gourd shows. Some are as small as a walnut, while others grow as large as a watermelon.
"Gourds do come in all shapes and sizes," McHenry said.
Drying and curing gourds can take weeks, and McHenry spends days carving, painting, staining and woodburning his original designs onto the exterior.
"There are all kinds of techniques," McHenry said. "I enjoy doing it because it keeps me in biology; it keeps me in art."
Single gourds are used to create lampshades, pots or decorative pieces carved in relief with owls and other birds. McHenry pieces gourds together to create Native American figures, birds and squirrels. Sometimes he weaves together pine needles or twigs to form a coiled rim for a gourd that has been carved into a pot. Gourd shards are transformed into fish or pendants.
McHenry gives educational talks, complete with props, about biology and gourd art. One of the highlights for visiting students are his musical instruments, such as drums and rain sticks. Thunder gourds, which are created from a single gourd with the bottom cut off and covered with a drum skin to which a weighted door spring is attached, reverberate with an impressive booming sound.
"The home-schooled kids love the thunder gourd," McHenry said.
Spherical buffalo gourds, which grow wild in Kansas, are used by McHenry to create Christmas ornaments, often painted with Wizard of Oz characters or items representing the 12 days of Christmas.
"About one in five will hold its shape as it dries," McHenry noted.
McHenry's art is not limited to gourds — he also paints, does photography and carves designs in emu eggshells.
"When you carve on an emu eggshell, the outer layer is dark green or black, the next layer is this blue-gray, the next layer is white, and the next layer — you've broken through," McHenry said.
McHenry will speak on gourd carving at 1 p.m. on Jan. 25 at the Inman Senior Center, 103 E. Gordon St. in Inman. Several of his pieces are currently on display there.
"The display is wonderful," said Diane Miller, secretary for the Inman Arts Council. "I found out about his work when it was on display at Central Christian College's library last fall."
McHenry's pieces can also be seen and purchased from the Courtyard Gallery, 125 N. Main St. in Lindsborg.
"Everywhere I go, there's all kinds of interesting biology as well as art," McHenry said. "Those two seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, but I think they fit neatly."
To schedule a tour of McHenry's museum, email firstname.lastname@example.org.