Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education
How do you mark this spooky holiday? Are you donning a costume and trick-or-treating? Watching scary movies and gorging yourself on candy? Maybe your house and yard are decorated to frighten passersby, and if they are, I bet there’s a jack-o’-lantern on your front porch! Carving pumpkins is definitely one of the traditions I most associate with the day, and, despite the sharp tools, it might be one of the safest ways to celebrate this year!
Have you ever wondered why we carve jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween? The practice is believed to have begun in Ireland (if the name didn’t give that away), where hollowed-out turnips or beets were carved with a face, lit from within, and placed on windowsills to stop harmful spirits from entering one’s home. Sometimes they were also used to frighten people, and if you come across any photos of these most traditional jack-o’-lanterns, they certainly are scarier than those we make today! There is a lot of folklore surrounding the tradition of carving vegetables into lanterns, and many possible origins. By 1837, references to gourd-carving competitions appeared in newspapers, so at least some had transitioned from root vegetables to something that more resembles today’s carved pumpkins. Nowadays, carvers aren’t limited to just faces–you’ll find kits and templates with all manner of spooky scenes, and increasingly ornate, even sculptural, gourds.
If today’s festivities find you carving a pumpkin, why not approach it as sculpture? It may not be as spooky, but today in the Studio, we’re finding inspiration from artwork on display at FWMoA to create our own works of gourd art.
- A pumpkin
- Carving tools: the flimsy little saws that come in pumpkin carving kits may actually work the best for carving all the way through. For relief carving, I purchased a set of chisels and gouges from Harbor Freight a couple years ago, and relief printmaking tools would also work great!
Begin by cutting an opening in the top (or bottom, as I did) of your pumpkin and scooping out all the innards! If you’re planning to carve into the surface of your pumpkin like a relief sculpture and not pierce all the way through, scraping the inner walls to thin them out will help the light shine through when you’re finished.
Now, for the inspiration! I went a couple different directions on different sides of my pumpkin. First, I looked to our American Brilliant Cut Glass, known for its complex patterns that reflect and refract light. Although pumpkins, of course, lack the transparency of glass, the different patterns add texture and affect the way light shines through.
Different shaped gouges can mimic the wheels that would traditionally carve the glass. Most lines you see are “miter cuts”, and would have been carved with an angular, v-shaped wheel, so the v-shaped gouge creates a similar mark! The wider, u-shaped gouge, spun in a circle, makes round divots similar to the “bull’s eye.”
Dale Enochs’ limestone sculpture, currently on display in Static Energy, is often distinguished by a maze-like texture covering the surface. It reminds me of the patterns made by bugs as they eat through a fallen log! Not many of us have hunks of limestone around the house, let alone the tools or skills to carve it, so a pumpkin is a great canvas to play with similar patterns and textures.
I used the v-shaped gouge again to carve the zig-zaggy lines. An angled chisel works well to “draw” the edges of a straight-sided shape you want to carve, and to scrape away the skin if you want a smooth, recessed area, like the triangle above!
Whatever your inspiration, there are a couple important things to keep in mind! First, always cut away from yourself, and always make sure the hand you’re using to stabilize your pumpkin is behind the blade. Second, candles require oxygen to burn! If you’re using an actual candle for light inside your pumpkin, you will need to pierce all the way through in a few places in order for it to burn.