Tooele resident Sheryl Parsons has always had a love for Christmas, Santa and art. Her first time combining all three, though, fittingly started in North Pole, Alaska, 30 years ago.
In the early 1980s, Parsons, 56, and her then husband, who was in the U.S. Navy, were stationed in Adak, Alaska, which is about 1,400 miles out on the Aleutian Chain. Parsons’ cousin lived in Fairbanks at the time, and during a visit, told Parsons how cheap the land was and how good the jobs were there. That’s when she and her then-husband decided to build a home in the nearby city of North Pole. They lived there for 13 years.
During that time, Parsons said, she loved to buy Christmas craft magazines every holiday season and would pore over all of the Santa pictures shown in them.
“I love Christmas,” Parsons said. “I was an aspiring artist, so I would look through the Christmas magazines and I would drool over all these Santa pictures.”
She knew that she wanted to begin making some Santa crafts of her own, but at first, she didn’t know where to start.
“I was a stay-at-home mom looking for a way to make some extra income,” she said. “It all started one day when I was out chopping wood. Sometimes you get a little slab off the side where the wood has a curve at the top and a flat bottom. I thought, ‘Why can’t I just paint a Santa on the flat side but leave the bark on?’”
Parsons said after a successful Santa was made out of the wood, she started making several more. She was even able to earn the extra income she had been searching for by selling the Santas in a local store called The Knotty Shop that sold handcrafted items.
After getting a taste for creating unique Santas, Parsons started to branch out even more. She began using papier mâché to cover things like bottles and light bulbs, and would then paint them to look like Santas.
“It just expanded from there,” Parsons said.
After her 13 years of living in North Pole, Parsons slowly started making her way to Utah. She got divorced and moved further south in Alaska until she made it to northeast Oregon. She met her current husband, Kent, online and moved to Wendover, where he worked as principal of Anna Smith Elementary. They lived in Wendover for about 10 years until moving to Tooele about eight months ago to help care for Parsons’ mother-in-law.
Although Parsons has moved frequently since she started creating her Santas, she hasn’t lost her love for the art. She now mostly crafts her Santas out of dried gourds. She’ll work to make any size or shape of gourd look like a Santa.
“I buy the gourds dried and then I take air-dry clay and sculpt the faces and details on the gourds,” she said. “Sometimes I put arms on them and sometimes it’s just the faces. Each gourd has its own personality. I just let the gourd tell me what it’s going to look like. Then I use acrylic paint to paint them.”
It can take Parsons anywhere from eight to 20 hours to finish one of her gourd Santas, depending on how much detail she puts into it.
Parsons, who also works part time as an aide at Harris Elementary in Tooele, said since she initially started her Santa art, she has made at least 200 Santas.
“My Santas have really evolved,” she said. “I started with wood or pieces of driftwood, and now I use gourds. I like taking things from nature and working with them, but I have also turned things like a remote control, maple syrup bottle and tiny vanilla bottle into Santas.”
Parsons said Santa has always been her first love, but she also creates Halloween, Easter and other holiday gourd art. Parsons typically sells most of her gourd Santas online through eBay, Etsy or Reasons to Believe. The Seattle-based Reasons to Believe is an online store that focuses on selling collectible Santa pieces.
“That was kind of a dream come true, to be able to sell my Santas in Seattle,” Parsons said. “It was a big dream for me to be recognized as somebody good enough to be included in that site.”
Parsons has also received a best of show award and several blue ribbons for her gourd Santas at the Utah State Fair, she said.
Parsons still uses Christmas magazines for inspiration, but she now also belongs to a couple of online folk art groups. She said the artists post pictures of their works to help inspire each other. She also recently joined the Stansbury Art and Literary Society.
Parsons credits her mother for giving her a love of art and creativity.
“My mom shared everything with me as far as the love of art and creating,” she said. “She died when I was 17, but she taught me a lot. She was a painter and illustrator.”
That love of art instilled by her mother prompted Parsons to teach her kids about loving art as well.
“When I was a stay-at-home mom in North Pole, my children would help me paint little wood chip ornaments and magnets I’d make,” she said. “I would pay them to paint the big parts, and I’d do the detail work. They made enough money to go ride the rides at the fair and things like that. It became a family affair.”