Throughout our childhoods, regardless of our individual abilities, or lack thereof, we all get a chance to express our artistic sides through common experiences, be it coloring books, decorating cookies, dyeing Easter eggs, or the autumnal rite of passage that is carving pumpkins. Who among us hasn’t gleefully cut open a pumpkin with the alarming abruptness of Lucy Van Pelt in Charlie Brown’s “The Great Pumpkin” cartoon only to render the orange fruit, despite our best efforts, into something unrecognizable? Good times!
But the true artists participating in the Hopewell Valley Arts Council’s 7th Annual Amazing Pumpkin Carve aren’t merely tapping into some aspect of their respective childhoods. This is a serious – but devilishly good fun – endeavor for them. And their hard work, determination, and vision were on full display during “Carve Day” this past Wednesday at Woolsey Park in the Titusville section of Hopewell Township, where the annual event will take place nightly through Sunday, October 10. Individual artists and teams worked for, in some cases, nearly eight hours to transform some 40 different 100-plus-pound pumpkins into often ghoulish works of art that will both delight and disturb thrill seekers.
Guests will see everything from beautifully ornate owl families and intricate dragon designs to pop culture references such as Doctor Doom and a frighteningly realistic Pennywise, the clown from “It”. As with all art, inspiration can come from so very many places. Some are topical, as with Anne Nixon-Ellery’s elaborate “Weather Matters”, a take on climate change, or Barbara DiLorenzo’s intricate examination of a chameleon eating a spotted lanternfly. The team of two-time winner Aleece Davis and Jill Thomas, meanwhile, described their work-in-progress as “Dusty Springfield meets Day of the Dead”, a twisted morphing of the British pop singer’s face with the traditional stylings of the Mexican holiday. “Son of a Padre”, anyone? Using zippers to shape and hold the mouth, this team was well on its way to a truly unusual pumpkin rendering that, as Davis expressed hopefully, “visitors will be able to appreciate at a distance from their cars rather than just close up.”
The Hopewell Valley Arts Council adapted the annual event into a drive-thru experience last year due to coronavirus restrictions, and even though guests will be car-bound once again in these still socially distanced times, the organizing team has further tweaked the schedule so that, should the car line back up, according to Public Relations Coordinator Mary Galioto, there will still be something to engage patrons along the way before entering the entertainment zone, whether it’s separate spooky displays or a live band.
Walking the path during media day during “the carve”, one could see the practical instruments and tools of the trade on full display, from simple carving knives to one-sided razors and ice cream scoops. And while many of the contestants are art teachers, others come from all walks of life. A sushi chef, a children’s book illustrator, and, in the case of Darrell Tuomari, a former veterinarian, giving him at least the perceived advantage of being skilled in surgical carving techniques. Of course, as he noted about his current design, “I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but now that I’m into it, it’s not coming together as quickly as I had hoped. And the clock is ticking.” Time flies when you’re defacing produce?
The dynamic Brass Rabbit takes a more Zen approach to the time restraints on her effort. For a documentary photographer who also works in data collection, stepping into the pumpkin carving arena may not seem like a logical transition. But, as the Trenton-based artist said, “having the freedom to try new things, different medium, whether it’s in the digital realm or something more hands-on like this, that strikes an appealing balance to the static data I’m used to working with.” It’s a whole left-brain/right-brain thing. And as for those time restraints, she cautions, as she ponders changes to her own entry, a replica of the coronavirus itself, “carving pumpkins isn’t like using Photoshop. If you make a mistake, you can’t just click undo, right? You can’t go back to the original. So don’t overthink it and enjoy the process.”
Nearby, John Woodard picks up on the photography theme of Brass Rabbit, relaying advice shared with him by a fellow carver years ago. “He told me that you should design and carve mindful of how the pumpkin will look in a photo, not necessarily how it will appear on a walk or from the vantage point of a car several feet away because a picture on a website or on social media will better capture the detail and subtleties, the light, the nuances of the cuts so much more and attract more people to come to see it in person.”
One could call Woodard, last year’s honorable mention winner, a seasonal carver as the award-winning sculptor works not only with pumpkins in the fall, but also with sand in the summer and snow in the winter. He prefers snow, calling it “more stable” to work with, noting that this year’s crop of pumpkins “had so much moisture in them, it’s been particularly tricky”. He further illustrates his point by barely applying any pressure to the outside of his pumpkin, easily peeling back some skin. “That’s crazy. It’s not normally like that”, he continues. “Usually you have to press a little harder in order to carve,” he concludes, eagerly throwing himself back into his “hobby”.
Owing to the fluidity of the art form itself, even the technical approach can vary from artist to artist. Many will hollow out the pumpkin completely, cut through it, or otherwise precisely poke holes into their pieces, allowing for often spectacular nighttime illuminations. For her part, four-time participant Jennifer Stevens was way more than elbow deep in her scorpion pumpkin design. Meanwhile, Curtis May, a self-proclaimed carving purist, prefers to sculpt and pick away solely on the outside, crafting an external piece of art with the oversized pumpkin serving as a framing device. His current endeavor depicts an artistic replication of a photo of his nephew’s newborn baby, a more personal piece that diverges drastically from the rest of the lineup, “embracing the cute”, as he puts it.
At the other end of the walk, Sarah Bernotas sits whittling tiny adornments for her cat-and-mouse piece. With a background working with wood, the full-time Visual Arts teacher at The Bridge Academy noted that, unlike wood, pumpkins, even at such an exaggerated size, often have “too much give to them”, making the delicate manipulation in transforming them from a giant round fruit into a recognizable work of art a bit of a challenge.
But as noted carver Jeff Brown, a former contestant on Food Network’s Halloween Wars points out, “the challenge is the reason I do this”. Participating annually, Brown joyfully embraces the art of the challenge itself, saying “That’s part of the draw and appeal of the pumpkin carve for me, creating something I haven’t done before”, as he busily constructs something that in its basically square design didn’t even look like a round pumpkin anymore.
Watching these masters at work, one can only marvel at the immense effort and extreme focus on display throughout the day. Some participants, like Pennington art teacher Caroline Hall with what could be described as a cross between an octopus-like creature and Munch’s famous “The Scream” painting, sketch out their designs in advance. Others, like four-time participants Danielle Deering and Molly Revie welcome the spontaneity of the experience. As Deering molds what will soon become a turtle, the latest in their line of animal pumpkin entries, to match the vision in her head, childhood friend Revie says, “This is fun for us. We look forward to it every year.” Their enthusiasm is infectious, drawing other artists into their orbit.
Of course, the true joy and spectacle of the pumpkin carve cannot be fully realized until the dark of night descends upon Woolsey Park and the tent displays light up with jack-o-lanterns in all their majestic and oftentimes frightening wonder. But one thing is for sure, The Amazing Pumpkin Carve is sure to have something that appeals to all tastes, as this reporter was delighted to find out nearing the end of the path and discovering Bordentown art teacher Matt Derby’s slowly evolving rendition of Grogu (otherwise known as “Baby Yoda”).
This is the way.
The Hopewell Valley Arts Council’s 7th Annual Amazing Pumpkin Carve Drive-Thru continues through Sunday, October 10 at Woolsey Park, 221 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road in the Titusville section of Hopewell Township, with evening hours from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Ticket prices are $25 per car (no oversized vehicles permitted). Learn more at https://www.hvartscouncil.org/amazingpumpkincarve/.