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Rural Missouri Magazine

An Eggcellent Artist
Art is not limited to traditional materials
says artist Rob Ghio

by Jeff Joiner

Rob Ghio of Columbia began raising emus a decade ago. Along the way he discovered a talent for creating beautiful artwork from emu eggs and dried gourds.

The object immediately grabs your attention — first for its size and then for the unusual images decorating its surface.

The object, a 2-foot tall, hollowed-out gourd is bedecked with 10 frogs sitting on lily pads, tongues flitting at flies. A closer look at the artwork reveals the images are actually carved into the surface of the gourd while the frog's eyes radiate a shimmering green.

The gourd is the pride of artisan Rob Ghio who explains that the green of the eyes are actually pieces of emu egg shell. Ghio carved the delicate pieces of shell and inlaid them into the surface of the gourd.

Nearly a decade ago Ghio, who owns a small farm north of Columbia he calls Rocky Fork, joined the budding emu industry when breeding pairs of the birds sold for thousands of dollars and emu farmers were working hard to establish markets for the bird's products, principally meat, feathers and medicinal oils made from the animal's fat.

For a time hundreds of people around the United States raised the birds in anticipation that one day large markets for emu products would develop. But those markets never materialized.

"We started raising emus and tried to market its meat and the fat," says Ghio, who has raised the birds since 1994. "There's not enough meat on them, only about 25 pounds and a good portion of that is tough. There's no breast meat, just drum and thigh. This bird's built to run, not to fly."

And though Ghio does sell some emu oil, the market is too small to make all the work involved worthwhile.

At one time Ghio, a Boone Electric Cooperative member, raised 10 breeding pairs of emus and one year butchered nearly 100 birds himself. Gradually he cut back to just four breeding pairs and began looking for other ways to make a living.

"I was aware that emu egg shell could be carved," says Ghio. "Well, I'm a tinkerer and I thought I'd try my hand at it."

His first rough attempt, using a Dremel rotary tool which is popular with hobbyists, was a frustrating experience. "I carved a picture of an emu on an egg and, good God, it took me two weeks. It was drudgery."

Ghio's 6-gallon gourd festooned with frogs is valued at $2,100.

Undaunted, Ghio talked to other egg shell carvers and found he just needed the right tool. Many carvers use a professional jeweler's tool similar to a dentist's drill.

"When I got satisfactory equipment I really began to like this." Last year Ghio went a step further and bought an air-driven tool that operates at 450,000 rpm and gives him more control.

The outside of an emu egg is a dark green, almost black, color. Ghio uses drill bits to grind through the surface to reveal a white layer. By varying the depth of his carving, Ghio produces images with a rich range of color from dark, emerald green to light turquoise to stark white.

Ghio's art took a new twist a few years ago when he showed his carved eggs at a small-farm conference at the Boone County fair grounds. Also at the fair grounds was the annual conference of the Show-me Gourd Society and Ghio says he was amazed by what he found.

"I was just blown away by what people can make with gourds and the different shapes and sizes. I immediately saw the potential of combining gourd and egg shell. I was consumed by what I was doing."

Ghio finds inspiration for his art in the world of nature and native peoples. He studies the art of aborigines of Australia as well as North and South American Indians and his favorite subjects are the animals those cultures revered.

"Native peoples like the aborigines lived close to nature. They respect critters and admired them and often held them as equals."

Ghio's work features animals of every description from spiders, turtles and fish to the Australian frilled lizard. His work is often graphic and stylized much like prints made from wood block engravings. Most of all they are rich in color and detail.

They have so much detail, in fact, a typical carved egg may take 20 hours or more to complete for which Ghio earns from $150 to $400. His gourds inlaid with shell, which are more involved, can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to the $2,100 price tag he has on his 6-gallon gourd festooned with frogs. His work has sold in numerous stores and art galleries.

Ghio still keeps emus on his farm which provide more than enough eggs each year for his art. He can now say that he's found a market for emu products, only it's a market he never dreamed he would tap.

For information about Ghio's work write: Rob and Betty Ghio's Rocky Fork Farms, 651 Calvert Hill Road, Columbia, MO 65202; or call (573) 442-9014. You can see more of Ghio's eggs and gourds on the Internet at www.rockyforkfarms.com.

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