Chloe Fugle, 12, stands inside the Gourd Palace Spirit House, a living sculpture at the Arlington Arts Center. The sculpture was inspired by Chloe's winning model she made at school. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

What do you use gourds for? The plants, which come in various sizes, shapes and colors, have been used as ornaments, birdhouses, bowls, food and even sponges. But gourds are also used to make something unusual: a living sculpture.

At the Arlington Arts Center, gourds and their vines are growing to great heights on an exhibit called the Gourd Palace Spirit House. They are beginning to cover a bamboo framework of sweeping arches that resembles a cathedral. Chloe Fugle, 12, helped design it.

“I had been to the National Cathedral earlier, and I modeled it off of the arches there,” said Chloe, a seventh-grader at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.

Chloe’s design was picked from those created by students at H-B Woodlawn and Tuckahoe Elementary in Arlington. Doug Retzler of Baltimore, the artist overseeing the project, visited both schools in the spring and showed the students a slide show of habitations, or homes, from around the world. He explained that many habitations are made from natural materials, including bamboo.

The students were then asked to sketch out their ideas for a living structure that could be built at the arts center. They made models with pipe cleaners, wires and foam core. Faylinda Kodis, an art teacher at H-B Woodlawn, and the fourth-grade teachers at Tuckahoe helped with the designs.

A variety of gourds fill the Gourd Place, which can be seen on front lawn of the Arlington Arts Center until October 13. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

Retzler and a design team chose Chloe’s model for the Gourd Palace’s overall design, with other students’ ideas mixed in. Chloe said she was thrilled to learn that her idea had been chosen.

“I was really excited,” she said. “I really had fun making the design.”

Retzler then set out to make the Gourd Palace. With the help of community volunteers, he created a substructure of rebar — or steel bar — and placed it underneath the bamboo frame, a process that took two weeks.

Next, Retzler and community members prepared for planting. They took home packets of gourd seeds and put them in cups with moist dirt, encouraging the seeds to grow. About a week later, the seeds began to germinate. (Germination is the process by which plants emerge from seeds.) They brought the tiny plants back to the arts center on June 15 to be planted. A few weeks later, their roots began to grow below ground, and the vines began to grow above ground.

The Gourd Palace, which is about 17 to 18 feet tall, will serve as a temporary community center. Stefanie Fedor, the arts center’s executive director, said that despite Arlington’s “shrinking green space,” she hopes the Gourd Palace will bring people together and help them see art in a new way.

“We’re really anticipating the moment when we have actual gourds appearing on the vines,” Fedor said several weeks ago. “Once that moment happens, what I anticipate is that we’ll have a lot more people spending time in it, using it as almost a shelter [and] a place to meet in the park.”

Community members have helped the Gourd Palace come to life since the arts center and Arlington Public Art came up with the idea two years ago. Students attended workshops on how to plant the seeds and make their own containers. People have grown seedlings and then guided the gourd vines, forcing them to grow upward.

On Oct. 12, as the life span of the Gourd Palace comes to an end, the arts center will host a Harvest Festival with music, art, food and games. The exhibit will be taken down the next day.

It’s unclear if another Gourd Palace will be built in the future. However, it’s the hope of the arts center, Retzler and community members to come together and make another “cool thing,” as Chloe called it.

— Pam Seaton

If you go

What: Gourd Palace Spirit House.

Where: Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington.

When: Wednesdays-Fridays,
1 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays-Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. until October 13. The Harvest Festival will take place October 12.

How much ? Free.

For more information: A parent can call 703-248-6800 or go to