It’s Halloween pumpkin-carving time. Most of us will set the bar low, digging in, doing our best to make two triangle eyes of roughly the same size.
Artist Ray Villafane is different. He isn’t satisfied until his jack-o’-lantern comes alive.
“I like it to look like it’s looking back at you,” says Villafane, 45, a former art teacher who started carving pumpkins 15 years ago. Today he does it full time, traveling the world showcasing his carving skills.
Villafane’s approach turns traditional methods of pumpkin carving inside-out: Instead of hollowing out the gourd and cutting holes, he chisels the pumpkin from the outside, much as an artist would a block of wood. True, he is a graduate of New York City’s School of Visual Arts, but Villafane says that achieving lifelike, three-dimensional affects primarily takes practice and proper tools.
“Traditionally, people use a knife on a pumpkin,” he says. “Not only is that incredibly difficult, it ends up looking very crude, even for an experienced sculptor.” Villafane’s start down the pumpkin path came when he put down the knife and picked up traditional clay sculpting tools, which consist of metal loops attached to handles.
Now based in Phoenix in a studio staffed with sculptors and jammed with gourds, Villafane got his start teaching art in Bellaire, Mich. His initial attempts at pumpkin carving weren’t promising.
“Being an artist, every time I sat down to carve a pumpkin, the experience felt so uneventful,” he says.
One day, a student brought an extra-large pumpkin to class, and Villafane used his sculpting tools. The creation was not only a smash with his class, it awakened his love of sculpting. Eventually, he quit teaching to become a commercial sculptor, working in clay and foam.
Even though he did high-end work for DC Comics and movie studios, his pumpkin carving garnered the most attention. Food Network contacted him in 2007 to participate in a televised pumpkin carving contest, and when he won, he narrowed his sculpting focus to the seasonal orange orb. (He currently has a Syfy network TV show in the works).
Soon after his pumpkin carving took off, Villafane was invited to participate in a sand sculpting competition in Italy. Now he gives equal time to the two impermanent media. It doesn’t bother him that his greatest accomplishments end up rotting or washing away. “It’s job security for me; I don’t want a pumpkin to last forever,” he says. “The fact that it rots away is almost a benefit, because it allows your brain to romanticize the event.”
His designs range from comical to horrific to sweet, yet Villafane says he never knows what he’s going to carve before he starts chipping away.
“Sometimes I see a pumpkin and it’s a shape that reminds me of something, but a lot of the time I just start and something will pop up,” he says. “I think the possibilities in pumpkin sculpting are still to be realized. This is just the infancy of what can be achieved.”
Click below for expert pumpkin carving tips from Matt Villafane and other carving pros…