It’s the late 1990s and Commack High School art teacher Ms. Mehling assigns two high schoolers the task of creating a haunted house for the community. The students, known Halloween junkies, go light on the family-friendly décor and heavy on the spooks, filling the haunt with real chain saws and over-the-top creepy ghouls that are still talked about in the school today.
"The kids and parents ran out screaming. It was epic," says one of those students, Marc Evan, now 40.
That haunted house was just the beginning for Evan and his then-classmate Chris Soria. The two are now the creators behind Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, an art studio that produces hundreds of elaborately carved pumpkins on display at venues such as The Museum of Modern Art and Yankee Stadium. It also won the top honor on Food Network’s 2012 "Halloween Wars."
"While we were in high school, we had teachers that really encouraged our creativity from the beginning," says Evan, who was co-president of the school’s art honor society alongside Soria. "Our art teacher [Gina Mehling] really pushed us and helped us embrace the weird and scary."
Evan and Soria are among a handful of Long Island artists that are finding themselves pulling all-nighters this October while they turn blank canvas pumpkins into creatures that glow in the night. With the pandemic changing the way we celebrate, local artists say there’s a heightened interest in the carving medium this year, whether it be for at-home DIY fun or viewing pleasure at events like the Great Pumpkin Blaze at Old Bethpage Village Restoration or the Bronx Zoo’s Boo at the Zoo.
The stretch from August through November is typically a busy time for the Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, but Soria says this year there’s even more to juggle. "People are looking for any way to celebrate, especially since occasions like birthdays and weddings have been canceled," says Soria, 40.
Evan adds: "Halloween is not something that can be canceled. It’s never-ending. We were carving pumpkins until 5 a.m. last night."
They have been carving pumpkins together professionally for more than 20 years.
While their pumpkins are typically commissioned for live events, this year is proving popular for private carves. Recent carvings include the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" for Nickelodeon, "Harry Potter" for the Broadway production and the face of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and the "Game of Thrones" Night King for private clients.
Their creations have a certain glow to them that your traditional jack-o'-lantern lacks. Instead of using the go-to, at-home carving technique (grabbing a kitchen knife), Evan and Soria primarily use a style known as etching. It’s created using handheld tools similar to those used in wood carving, such as open-loop etchers.
Etching: Lightly carving into the surface of the pumpkin in a process similar to block carving. "You're creating a negative image, so when a light bulb goes inside, it creates an almost holographic effect," Evan says.
Almost all carvings are done within 24-hours or less. "Typically, we do marathon stretches working 12 hours straight on a pumpkin," says Evan. It takes between six and 12 hours to complete a carve. This year, they’re working out of a studio space in Nyack.
"Photographs of the pumpkins are one thing, but to see it in person, they take on a whole other dimension. They follow you in a way," says Evan. "It’s a perishable art medium, so it’s special when people experience our work in the moment."
Their work can be seen on display at the Museum of Modern Art, where they attempt each year to replicate a famous piece of art in pumpkin, like Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. This year’s design is kept under wraps and is expected to be delivered to the museum for viewing on Halloween.
By the time Halloween arrives, artist Andy Gertler, 62, is happy to not see another pumpkin … until next year’s holiday, that is. The Great Neck native and Sue Beatrice, of Sea Cliff, who co-own Pumpkin Sculpt USA carve more than 100 pumpkins per season. They’re currently carving live at the Bronx Zoo’s Boo at the Zoo.
"This year, we're at the zoo twice as often as usual," says Beatrice, 59 who appeared on "Halloween Wars" in 2013. She leads two 10-minute quick-carve classes at the zoo Thursdays through Sundays.
Gertler credits the pandemic with giving his carving business a boost. With limited foot traffic allowed in the zoo per day, Gertler and Beatrice were asked to return for more dates than usual to catch more visitors.
Their work bends the rules of traditional pumpkin carving, using numerous pumpkins to create life-size displays. A 450-pound walrus took them three days to complete.
Last week’s creation, built at the zoo, was a family of emperor penguins. "We try to hit that ‘aw’ factor whenever we can," Gertler says with a laugh.
Gertler has been a professional sculpturist for 25 years, originally working solely with sand. "Then I saw Ray Villafane, who’s kind of the guy who started 3D pumpkin carving, which is relief carving as opposed to a jack o’lantern where you carve all the way through. I was blown away and started to learn it myself."
Relief carving: Craving into only the rind of the pumpkin to create 3D definition without cutting all the way through. This is similar to the face on a coin.
To create life-size carvings, pumpkins are stuck together with wooden skewers and carved into the desired animal shape. At the end, thin strips of pumpkin "flesh" cover the seams so it looks like one big sculpture.
Beatrice, a sculpture artist who also works with sand, often makes miniature designs out of clay to serve as a model for the carvings. "We don’t use stencils. Sometimes I’ll glance at a reference depending on the animal to get the facial structure correct," she says.
Gertler says he grew up carving pumpkins (but "not anything spectacular") and Beatrice says she’s still a big fan of Halloween. "One of the reasons I love Halloween so much is that it’s a holiday that really does promote creativity. Everyone gets to express themselves. It reminds you to be a kid." But don’t expect to see decorations and elaborate pumpkins on her stoop at home. "My house is pretty empty because I’m too busy carving elsewhere."
Ready to get carving? Attempting a relief or etching technique this Halloween will set your pumpkins apart. Here's how to create your own.
Crafting the carve: Tips from experts
- Pick a healthy pumpkin: “One way to determine a healthy pumpkin is it has a healthy stem, one that’s not brittle or broken off.” - Chris Soria, Maniac Pumpkins
- Find the heaviest pumpkin: “This means the walls will be the thickest,” meaning more room to sculpt. - Andy Gertler, Pumpkin Sculpt USA
- For longevity, keep it cold: Refrigerate it when it’s not on display. “If you carve it and put it on the stoop, it’s exposed and is quicker to break down if not get eaten." If you have room, cover it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. "If you’re really ambitious, give it an ice bath. It will plump it back to life.” - Chris Soria, Maniac Pumpkins
- Take a sculpture class: If you really want to up your carving game, learn the craft. “Everything we do is sculpting.” - Andy Gertler, Pumpkin Sculpt USA
Step 1: Decide which form of carving to attempt. Etching and relief carving both give off a 3D effect and won’t involve cutting into the pumpkin like creating a typical jack o’lantern does. For etching, you’ll want to carve out the inside to illuminate the pumpkin. When attempting relief carving, the inside of the pumpkin can be left alone and external light sources can help illuminate the carving.
Step 2: Consider a simpler design: Sue Beatrice of Pumpkin Sculpt USA says for those attempting relief carving, sketching out a cartoon animal face is the way to go. "The nice thing about animals is the curvy forms. You don’t have to learn how to put straight lines in a curved object, which is very difficult," she says. "Because a pumpkin domes out in the front, it lends itself to the form of an animal."
Step 3: Remove the rind: When relief carving, start by using a drywall scraper to gently remove the rind, or shiny coating on the pumpkin skin. "Once you remove the orange part, you won’t have the difficulty of pushing through that to sculpt, says Beatrice.
Step 4: Sketch an outline on the pumpkin: Chris Soria, of Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, recommends using a pen for visibility. "It will make for a better carving rather than attempting freehanding," he says. Do this after you remove the rind.
Step 5: Gently begin to etch: Using a clay loop tool, gently begin removing areas of the pumpkin to create your desired shape. "Starting with a clay loop tool is safe and it won’t let you get too out of control. You don’t want to start with a paring knife," says Beatrice.
Step 6: Don’t be afraid to carve deep into your pumpkin: "Push on it as you're carving," says Soria. "If you feel it moving around and getting wiggly, you’re too close to the center. That’s as far as you can go." Remember, the goal is not to carve all the way through the pumpkin.
Step 7: Step back and see if it’s working: Check how the light is hitting your carving to decide where to carve deeper.
Step 8: Take your time. "And don’t expect too much," says Beatrice. "Pumpkins are going to rot in a few days anyway, so you have nothing to lose. Just dive in."