Zombies exoplode out of a giant pumpkin at the New York Botanical Garden.
A predator lurks within the pumpkin patch; a mutant pumkin sprouts arms and legs and threatens the life of an innocent gourd with a pairing knife.
No one is safe from the mind of Ray Villafane.
Mr. Villafane is the two-time winner of the Food Network's "Challenge: Outrageous Pumpkins."
Martha Stewart referred to him as "The Michaelangelo of pumpkin carving," but personally I think Ray's style is closer to Bernini or Rodin.
Ray took some time out from his busy schedule to chat with me about his passion and his creative process.
Ying Zhu: How did you go from Clay and Wax sculpting to Pumpkin sculpting?
Ray Villafane: I actually started with pumpkins and went to clay and wax, then back to pumpkins. I used to be a schoolteacher and when I was a teacher, a kid brought in a pumpkin and I carved it. The kids all liked it and it became an annual thing I began to do – carving pumpkins. In a way carving pumpkins is one of the things that made me realize that I really enjoyed 3D arts and then eventually years later, I pursued a career in sculpting and began to work for clients like Marvel and Warner Bros. and such. And when I became a commercial sculptor I continued to do the pumpkins and they got better and because pumpkins have a broader appeal to the general population, it really became the thing people started to associate me with. I had a following of people who followed my work with collectibles and comic books and pop culture stuff but it was the pumpkins that really exploded.
YZ: What was your first professional sculpture?
RV: My first professional sculpture was an X-Men character named Wolverine. I did that – that was about 9 years ago. It was my first sculpture in this type of genre and it was responsible for kicking off my entire career because it got picked up by Marvel. And from thereafter it was a steady flow of commercial work. For two years I juggled teaching and commercial sculpting and then finally two years later I resigned from teaching – went on a contract with Warner Bros. and I did commercial sculpting for several years after that.
Now I'm trying to get out of commercial sculpting and just start my own company that deals with not just Halloween pumpkin carving but a little bit of everything.
I've tapped into some of my colleagues in the commercial industry, and my best friend, Andy Bergholtz, who is a great sculptor, became a partner in this with me. He and I together have a sculpting studio and what we do is not just Halloween pumpkin carvings: we do sand sculptures and we're looking to eventually do snow sculptures – mainly "event" type of sculpting for public display as opposed to small commercial things.
YZ: For amateur pumpkin carvers, what tools do you recommend?
RV: I use ribbon loop tools - they're not sharp, typically you'd use them when working with clay; they work well with pumpkins, and you don't really need a lot of tools. I sell a kit on my site that only has five tools. One of the tools is double ended so it's kind of like seven but pretty much that's all I use. People often look at the sculptures and think, oh you must use drills and all sorts of different things but quite frankly its rather simple – the tools are not sharp. At the very end I utilize a knife or something like that – you can use a gaffer's knife or a little paring knife--but 95% of it is done with loop tools.
YZ: Can you please talk about your creative process? How well do you know before you begin carving what the finished pumpkin will look like?
RV: I'm not organized enough to usually have a game plan. Often when I have to think of an idea, or even when I don't have to think of an idea, my mind is always racing. When I used to do the collectibles, the little toys and stuff, different superheroes, my wife's superhero nickname for me was Obsesso, because I obsess over things. When I get into something I can't get it out of my head and thoughts are racing through my mind. I think about, what can I do? I'm trying to get ideas and things are racing through my mind. No rhyme or rhythm – it could be totally unrelated things to pumpkins – and I often assimilate it to a junk drawer. You need something but you don't know exactly what you need, so you end up going to the junk drawer. You usually have a bunch of crap in there and you just open it up and you start sifting through it and often you find a couple things that work. That's usually how I think. I never have an organized way to approach a problem.
One of the things I often do is when I approach a problem, I don't say, "What's possible with this pumpkin?" I look at it and say, "What would be really cool?" Some people approach the pumpkin with thoughts like, "What can I carve into this pumpkin?" or "What can I make that is possible to make?" I don't approach it that way. I ask myself, "What can I make that looks cool?" and then I figure out how to possibly make that. I may come up with an idea that requires the pumpkin to do something that it cannot normally do.
In the New York botanical display, the pumpkin – a life-size zombie is wearing pants. The pants he is wearing are pumpkin rind. I wanted the pumpkin to have part of it be the actual skin of the pumpkin but most people might say, "Okay if I'm going to do that then I need to cut chunks of pumpkin – I need to find pieces of pumpkin that are about the girth of a leg and slice them into there." To me that would look silly – it wouldn't look natural. So I never try to solve a problem by finding the conventional way; I kind of get rid of all of what I think is acceptable and I just try to come up with a pure idea as if all I have to do is draw it.
YZ: Do you ever draw the design or do you just improvise?
RV: I usually don't draw it - once in a while I may but usually not. With the New York botanical pumpkin sculpture, I wanted to have pumpkin-lined pants so Andy and I brainstormed to figure out how we could do it. I thought, what if we take the pumpkin, and take all of the meat out of it? We cut pieces and take all the meat off of the rind then we steam it. I just think of the idea and worry about how you do it afterwards. That's one of the ways I come up with ideas: I think, what would be cool? and then think about how I can get there afterwards.
YZ: I saw a Fish sculpture that's really cool. Did you have that idea first? Or did you see a shape and think: that one would make a cool fish?
RV: The latter. Once in a while you find a pumpkin that has a shape that works well for what you want to do and it might inspire an idea and you go with it. At times it ends up working out and sometimes I might find a pumpkin that inspires an idea and as I'm working on it that idea might change four different times! I just kind of sit down and start carving a pumpkin and whatever it comes out to be, it comes out to be!
YZ: How has your technique evolved from when you first started sculpting?
RV: I allow for more opportunities within the pumpkin. When I first started I was approaching it more like: what could I carve and what's possible to carve? Now my technique is: what would be a great sculpture? and I'll figure out how to get there afterwards. I just want to come up with a good idea. If that good idea means that something needs to be done but I can't even think of the physics of how to do it, I'll sit down and try to think of the physics but it's the idea that's most important. You can see this in the squishy faces.
YZ: What would you say was the most challenging facial expression or design that you tried to capture in a pumpkin sculpture?
RV: Doing the life-size sculpture is by far the most challenging. To try to have to work around armatures and welding up, and having the steel frames welded up - without a doubt the life-size sculptures are the most ambitious and time-consuming of all. As far as general smaller conventional pumpkins I would say any one that has a lot of little pieces added to it – like the football player - trying to make the face mask for that one, or the Viking. Whenever you have to pin and piece things together.
When I first started I never did any piecing together or pinning or gluing of pumpkins because I deemed it cheating. I thought: I don't want to do that – I want people to see my pumpkins and understand that it's one solid pumpkin. After several years of doing that, I realized, well, why am I doing this? Just to prove a point? I've already proved that I could carve so why not have fun with the pumpkin? I'm so glad I made that leap and started to construct things that are more complex.
YZ: Do you ever make a mistake and go, "damn I ruined this pumpkin!" How do you handle mistakes?
RV: I usually tell Jackson--my seven-year old son--to finish it! Yeah, if it's a big mistake I usually throw it away or give it to my kid to finish. Obviously there are times when you can't do that; say if you're at an event and you don't have time to do another one. But the majority of the pumpkins that I do are done at home. If I make a mistake – because it's a very committed process, it's not like clay where you can put more back on it or change it around – if I break through I have to throw it away and start over.
YZ: So how would you fix it during an important event? Are you nervous when that happens?
RV: If it's at an event you just do whatever you can. It depends on how you mess up. If I break through, there are some things I could do: I could take several slivers and shavings of pumpkin and patch it. That thin wet flimsy pumpkin meat will dry onto the surface just like Papier-mâché.
YZ: Do you use the toothpicks like conventional carvers?
RV: Yeah, well I use wire all the time and pins and superglue works good on pumpkins! I just learned that recently.
YZ: Are you sick of the smell of pumpkins by now or do you still enjoy pumpkin pies and bread?
RV: I do not like the smell of pumpkins. After being up all night carving, I don't want to clean up until the morning, and the pumpkin smell – ugh, I hate that. I definitely hate the smell of pumpkins. I'm not a huge pumpkin pie fan – that doesn't mean I don't like it but I'm not a big pie fan in general.
YZ: Are you friends with pumpkin growers? Are there people looking out for the ideal pumpkins for you?
RV: Oh yeah, absolutely. We just moved to Phoenix Arizona, so in Arizona, obviously, they don't have the pumpkins I need, so we make the trek up to Northern California and there's a huge farm up there-- Uesugi Farms--that has given me, for the last two years, the pick of whatever pumpkins I want.
So I have those people and I also have the GPC. GPC is a Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth. They're the people who do the big weigh offs and when there's a competition on those monster pumpkins – they're what the NFL is to football and what Nascar is to race-car drivers. So the GPC is also working to help me. They're developing a variety of pumpkin for me, that is even thicker.
YZ: Is it just the thickness or are they also developing special shapes for you?
RV: Well they asked me what I want in the pumpkin. I said I want a thick pumpkin – a solid pumpkin. I said make it as solid as possible. I said I like the meat, the flesh, the pulp of the pumpkin to be a rich dark color, because sometimes you cut into a pumpkin and it's very white, sometimes yellow, and sometimes its more orangey. I said the darker the flesh, the better.
YZ: And why is that?
RV: It shows shadows better. When you do a sculpture it makes the shadows much nicer. Same way that if you ever go to a body building competition they tan themselves like crazy – it shows the shadows more. If you have a really pale guy going up on the stage his muscle tone wouldn't show as much. So the darker colored flesh shows the shadows better. I said a nice thick stem just because thick stems look good on pumpkins. Those are the three different criteria I gave them. They said it'll take a couple years but they're working on that. So I do have relationships with not only pumpkin farms but also growers that develop a seed for our company.
YZ: That's great. How do you modify your sculpting technique when you work with sand?
RV: Sculpting is sculpting, really. Any good sculptor could go from material to material rather easily. The only thing with sand that you need to be careful with is not to get over ambitious with undercuts because if you take away too much from underneath something it's going to collapse. Other than that it's pretty much just general sculpting. It's a mainly subtractive approach: you're using a shovel; you're taking away most of the material but you can also wet the sand up and add to it. Obviously it doesn't go on like a paste but if you wet some sand you can pack on a little bit more. Its not strictly subtractive like pumpkins. You can't really add pumpkin back as freely as you could with sand.
YZ: How has your partner Andy complemented your work? What did he bring to your company?
RV: He's a phenomenal sculptor first of all – just incredible. He's actually why I decided to go into sculpting, I was inspired by his work and it just took me several years talking him into doing pumpkins.
We complement each other well. I tend to be a little more of a risk taker; I'm a little more apt to attempt something that's never been done before. He's a little bit more – I don't want to say cautious – well he's more cautious but he's more decisive so it's nice to have that even balance.
Even though I like to take risks, there are times when he says, "Hey, you do realize this if you do that?" and I'll said, "Oh, you're right" and maybe I'll back down that level of ambitiousness to do something that's never been done to a more realistic approach. But at the end of the day that balance still allows us to break boundaries but does it in a way that we still have good quality.
We complement each other very well: Yin and Yang – we work well together.
YZ: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
RV: The most rewarding part is being able to make really cool, fun things. When I do the pumpkin carvings and I see people that come to the event – they're ooing and aahing over it – I know exactly how they feel because as I'm working I'll turn to Andy or any one of our other sculptors and I'll look at their work and I feel the same way. I think, wow I can't believe they did that with the pumpkin – I get so excited! It's very rewarding to be able to do something where I can also get geeked out by working with these other sculptors.
I love seeing kids and people's reaction. The pumpkin carving we do is a really for a wide demographic. If I were just to display my commercial sculpting, an elderly woman is not going to walk up to my predator statue from the movie Predator or Alien – she's not going to walk up to one of those statues and say "wow!" – she would probably be turned off by it. But you put a pumpkin in front of someone and I don't care if they're old, young, male, female – everyone thinks it's cool. It's really fun to be able to give the general public something to enjoy and at the same time to enjoy it just as much. You can't help but smile when you see a really cool pumpkin. I get that way still today. If I see a cool pumpkin--if one of our guys does one--I just want to go and look at it closely; I'm fascinated by it. It's fun knowing that experience is being given to such a wide range of people.
YZ: If you were to teach a beginner carver, what advice would you give?
RV: The most important advice above all would be to get a good pumpkin. Some people think I'm joking when I say that but I'm not. I had a young girl ask me for advice, I said, "Get a good pumpkin" and she thought I was being rude but I was totally serious! If I had to get someone to win a pumpkin carving contest and I had two different scenarios – one is in which I taught them for three hours to carve a pumpkin and they pick out their own pumpkin and then the other scenario is I pick up a pumpkin for them and I give them a ten minute crash course – I'd rather give them a ten minute crash course. The pumpkin is so crucial!
So picking out the right pumpkin would be picking one that's heavy for its size; that tells you that it's going to be thick--that's the number one thing. The number two thing would be to use the right tools – don't do it with a knife, approach it with the loop tools. And use a reference. Those three things would probably be top three. Good pumpkin, the right tools, and reference.
YZ: Have you done ice sculptures?
YZ: You don't seem to like permanent media. Are you attracted to the impermanence of things?
RV: A little. I would say yes to that and while it might sound odd, I think if anyone gave it a try, they would understand why. As long as you make something that you really like, and this really sounds odd, but if you make something you really like in a temporary material you're going to like it even more. If that statement holds true, then it would seem obvious that if the reason you make something is to enjoy the experience, then if you want to enjoy it more, you make it out of something temporary.
If you think about it for a moment, lets say a meal – if there's a meal you really like that you only had once or twice in your life, or you only have it once a year or at special occasions – maybe you went on vacation in Italy and you ate at this restaurant, it was so delicious that after you leave, every time you think about that restaurant your memories of that experience are amplified. Had you been able to go there every day, you would most likely not really appreciate that experience as much.
So if you make something that you really like and no longer have it a week or two later, your memories of that entire experience are going to be much more rewarding than they would be for something that you made and could revisit.
When you apply that to something you made–there is something really powerful about making something; most creative people could understand this--with something you made, you get a really amplified version of that experience in your memory like, "Wow that was really fun to do!" But you do want to have a good photo of it obviously! [laughs]
YZ: Thank you so much!
You can check out more of Ray Villafane's work at Villafane Studios.
(Karen Lo and Jorja Hudson contributed to this article.)