Nancy Jacobson, owner of Elohi Spirit Gourds & More, has been a gourd artist for around 15 years. Her works often tie to Native American traditions. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

POTTERSVILLE — A store still sits along the road that rolls through what’s left of Pottersville, a Howell County community with perhaps more folks in the cemetery than in town. The tiny store’s shelves, however, aren’t filled with goods and groceries to feed the mouth. Instead, they contain gourds that provide a feast for the eyes and heart.

It’s all from the hands of Nancy Jacobson and her husband, Jerry, who own Elohi Spirit Gourds & More. The couple’s artistic creations largely tie to Native American traditions. Some of that connection is through Nancy’s heritage — as she understands it, she is descended from the Delaware tribe via her great-grandmother — but also through interest in the Cherokee.

“Living here, I found people of Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Quapaw, and some other tribal traditions that shared their traditions,” she said, noting that they centered around the Chickamauga Cherokee. “I decided to learn from the people here and have loved what I have been able to learn.”

Even the shop’s name — Elohi — means Earth in Cherokee. 

“I wanted to call it Earth Spirit Gourds because each gourd kind of comes out of the Earth, and has its own character, its own spirit — it’s unique. That’s just like people and everything else; it’s all unique,” she said in the shop on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Nancy’s creations vary in color, size and style — and are sold alongside work from a few other local artists, including ones her husband creates — but remain true to the gourd at its start.

“I think you can overwork things. I want my gourds to always look like gourds,” she said, and shared that, based on her understanding, they were historically used by some Native Americans for both ceremonial and functional purposes.

“I want them to always be what they are.”

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An example of Nancy’s work. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

The long journey to the Ozarks

The road to the shop on the Springfield side of West Plains parallels Nancy’s life and the journey it took to get to the Ozarks.

She’s lived in Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and Minnesota — where she pursued a variety of art forms, including dance — but it was her Ozarks heritage that called her home to Howell County more than 20 years ago. 

“My grandpa’s parents were married in Eminence, and he was born somewhere around there,” she said. “He was orphaned when he was a baby, and then he lived in different Ozarks areas. 

“I was brought up on cornbread and all the types of cooking from the Ozarks. He played the banjo and I just was saturated with Ozarks culture, but I didn’t really know to what extent that was going to play in our life until we started traveling back and forth between Texas and Minnesota.” 

While on the journey, the Jacobsons found out through their heartstrings, which pulled them to the region.

“I always felt this sense — he did, too — and I don’t know what it was, but we just felt a connection,” Nancy recalls. 

Lots of practice before the shop opened

It was here on the couple’s 32 acres that she began doing gourd work around 2009 after getting the idea from friends. The skill development eventually led to the standalone shop, which came to be after “saving my lunch money, saving every little penny that I could” in 2013. That’s the same year she retired from casework at the local hospital.

Despite her history in various art forms, it took Nancy time and practice to get to that point of the shop’s opening.

“My first gourds were rough. I was learning Cherokee language at the time, so I was practicing what I was learning. So that was one of my very first ones,” she said, holding an example to show with characters in the Native American language.  

“I keep them around because I’m teaching my grandchildren, especially my granddaughter who is 7, to do things, and I want her to see that you don’t start with the more fancy stuff. You start and you learn and you teach yourself.”

‘I decided I couldn’t beat her, so I’d join her’

Nancy and her granddaughter aren’t the only ones in her family who create gourd art. Several years ago, Jerry also decided to try his hand at the craft.

“I decided I couldn’t beat her, so I’d join her,” he said, showing a rack of his work, which focuses on designs with colorful melted wax. He also shows a large gourd called a thunder gourd that lives up to its name: the right kind of tap results in a reverberating noise that echoes like sounds in the sky.

 “It’s just got a little Mylar and a spring you stick up in there, and that’s all it is,” said Jerry, who has sold four of the five he’s made so far.

“The first time I made them last summer, we were in that drought,” he adds, recalling that he took one outside and posed for a photo that Nancy put on Facebook. “Sure enough, it rained that night.” 

“Of course, we knew the rain was coming, but it was fun timing,” adds Nancy. 

Nancy and Jerry Jacobson stand outside Elohi Spirit Gourds & More, located in rural Howell County.

The drying process can take years

The creation process begins long before a gourd is in hand and ready for transformation.

The Jacobsons grow around 60% of their gourds right on their property. After they’re started inside, planted and grown, then comes the drying process — which, for the largest, pumpkin-related gourds, can take years.

The latter part of the process can also leave a unique pattern on the outside of the gourds. They are then thoroughly cleaned before being ready for adornment.

“When they’re drying — the powder you see on them is due to the molding process,” she says. “The molding process is what makes them beautiful in my eyes.” 

Staying true to the original artist

The decorative stage is where Nancy’s Native American history often combines with an artist’s heart. Those ties lead Nancy to stay true to historical details.

“I’m kind of an artist, so I can never just do what someone else does. I always have to change it up a little,” she said. “What I change is that I put it on a gourd rather than on pottery or a gorget.

When I’m taking a design that’s not mine, I don’t try to tweak it just to make it mine. I try to stay true to the original artist.” 

But in other instances — and when she’s working on creations from her own mind — she tries to be completely original. Instead of using Pinterest, a popular online “idea” social media platform, to find ideas, she utilizes it to make sure she’s not copying someone else’s work.  

Nancy creates clans of Gourdillos, armadillo-themed gourds. A number of them have recently been on display at The Yellow House, an art center in West Plains. (Photo by Elohi Spirit Gourds)

Creating ‘gourdillos’ out of canteen gourds

That way of thinking helped lead to families of Gourdillos, armadillo-themed gourd creations, which Nancy affectionately refers to as clans.

“I think I can say that one is my idea. I know I didn’t copy anyone,” she said.

Like their real-life counterparts’ wanderings on Ozarks roads, the gourdillos have traveled to other places. Nancy taught a class on how to create them at the Show-Me Gourd Society’s 2022 gourd festival. When the war in Ukraine began, she decided to christen them with Ukrainian names — and donate part of the proceeds to help those in the war-torn country.

An example she shows is Nadia, “because in the Ukrainian language, Nadia means hope,” she said.

The Gourdillos’ bodies are made with half of a canteen gourd, but other elements are created with items Nancy has on hand.

“They are forks. These are spoons,” said Nancy pointing out parts made with disposable cutlery that she got from her daughter. “I said, I’ll figure out something (to do with them).’ You know I have a whole house — well, almost. In my craft room I have so many things.”

Some of those items are “found,” such as antlers and animal bones she finds nearby. Beadwork is also often a feature, as are arrowheads, the latter of which are often sourced from Butch Stone, a longtime flintknapper from neighboring Douglas County, who was profiled by Ozarks Alive in 2017.

When Nancy crafts those creations, she uses another name herself: Nazmeya, which means “purposeful or diligent,” and was given to her by a dance teacher years ago. 

“I’ve always had that other creative name. That’s who I am when I create,” she said. “I’m Nancy when I make beds and pay bills.”

Elohi Spirit Gourds & More is located at 934 State Route K, Pottersville. The shop is primarily accessible by appointment, although there are blocks of open hours offered periodically. For more information, connect on Facebook.

Kaitlyn McConnell

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region’s people, places and defining features since 2015. McConnell regularly shares her stories with readers of the Springfield Daily Citizen. Contact her at: kaitlyn@ozarksalive.com More by Kaitlyn McConnell More by Kaitlyn McConnell