Art + Botany: Designer Pumpkins
When leaves rustle and the wind howls, pumpkins become a favored medium for many artists. This gallery features artists with very diverse backgrounds—a musician, a sculptor, a forensic artist, and a farmer—and designs with equally different aesthetics, including pumpkins with flowers, pumpkins with dead musicians, and pumpkins with NYC pride. Check out these elaborate pumpkin carvings from six carvers—they're inspiring, scary, funny, and beautiful!
Wielding his sculpting tools to find a personality in the pumpkin, artist Ray Villafane carves detailed portraits of frightfully wonderful characters. His pumpkin faces capture movement and convey expression, and they read like snapshots from a storyboard of a Halloween tale. How will the chilling drama unfold?
The portraits are fantastical and realistic; one almost expects the faces to blink He's been hailed as the "Picasso of Pumpkin Carving" by Wall Street Journal, and his video commentary and tutorials have been featured on The Martha Stewart Show.
This year, Villafane was invited to the New York Botanical Garden, to carve the world's largest pumpkin. He whittled away at the 1,818.5 lb specimen, creating an animated scene of fearsome zombies and demons breaking through the pumpkin's shell. It's a remarkable undertaking, yet one with a short life: pumpkins do not last forever, and neither does the holiday demand.
But that's okay with Villifane; on the limited season for this medium, the artist remarks "It's kind of like that holiday dessert that you only have once a year. Your memories of it are really heightened and you become more emotionally attached to it." When it's not pumpkin season, the artist sculpts wax prototypes of action figures for clients such as DC Comics.
A New York City native, Villafane graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1991. The sculptor began experimenting with pumpkins as a school teacher in Michigan. Parents loved them, and so did local restaurants.
Before long, Villafane became a niche celebrity, and, in 2007, he was invited to the Food Network's Challenge Show: Outrageous Pumpkins. He won the Grand Prize and he has been successfully defending his title in the years since. His pumpkins have also decorated the President's Quarters in the White House.
World-renowned in the field of culinary art, Ray Duey approaches his fruits and vegetables with the eye of a floral designer, and the hand of an engraver. Floral motifs and intricate line-work are his signature designs, and his portfolio includes more complicated commissions—he once recreated The Last Supper from five watermelons.
In 2010, he was invited to the annual Halloween event at the White House, where he and a team of food sculptors built a haunted house out of pumpkins. The 3 foot-by-4 foot landscape featured trees of pumpkin stems, shingles from pumpkin slices, and rooftops of seeds.
Shawn Feeney has carved himself a particularly niche design field: resurrecting dead musicians in pumpkins. The memorial series includes Ronnie James Dio (2010), Michael Jackson (2009), and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (2008), who Feeney calls "the godfather of electronic music." And the artist should know; he studied music at Harvard University, the MIT Media Lab Europe, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand, focusing on "sound sculpture" in a Master of Fine Arts program.
Feeney is currently featured as a pumpkin carver for the Food Network mini-series Halloween Wars, where he whittles his team victorious. This year, he is also carving pumpkins at the White House, alongside some of the nation's most accomplished culinary artists.
Shawn Feeney's talent for capturing the psychological depth of a pumpkin's character may owe a depth of gratitude to a job he held several years ago, as a Forensic Artist for a the Long Island Police Department. He spent two years drawing "thieves, kidnappers, and other criminal suspects while interviewing crime witnesses." As many artists will agree, experience often becomes the art, and Feeney's pumpkins do look poised for Halloween antics.
Marc Evans and Chris Soria are the founders of Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, a creative studio that has become known for their pumpkin carving. Their studio is based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which is evident in their work—many designs are an homage to New York City's culture and landscape, while others are commissioned by local clients.
Their pumpkins have loomed in Tiffany's ads, flickered in store window displays, and decorated skyboxes in Yankee Stadium (they carved 50 for the 2009 World Series).
Designing an estimated 300 pumpkins a year, Evans and Soria attribute their sustained inspiration, and energy, to horror movie marathons, and lots of coffee, respectively. They've been collaborating since the age of 12, and both are graduates of Parsons School of Design. They purchase pumpkins at local farmers markets and Whole Foods, and follow a well-honed regiment to keep their carved pumpkins fresh and frightening for as long as possible. In a recent interview on WNYC's Science Friday, they shared their tips, which include washing the pumpkin first, and spraying it with lemon juice.
Mike Valladao approaches pumpkin carving as a performance art. He's got a stage name (Farmer Mike), a costume (orange overalls and a straw hat), and a specialty. His preferred pumpkins are very large—between 100 pounds and a half ton, many of which he grows himself—and he has been carving them at fall festivals and state fairs since the early 1980s.
His signature technique is "Pumpkin Carving in the Round," in which he uses the thick shell of his enormous pumpkins to enhance the depth of his designs. Farmer Mike has been featured in The Old Farmer's Almanac, and has appeared on The Tonight Show. He also started a series of illustrated books to get children excited about nature. The first is titled Farmer Mike Grows Giant Pumpkins (QuarterCircleV, 2008).