Visual Arts

These artists have carved a niche — in pumpkins

It took Rudy Garcia of Overland Park about six hours to create this ghoulish pumpkin.
It took Rudy Garcia of Overland Park about six hours to create this ghoulish pumpkin. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Rudy Garcia was in Hong Kong, carving a pumpkin as part of a Halloween attraction at an amusement park. Suddenly he felt a woman touch his back. Moments later a few more people placed their hands on his shoulder.

“Why are they touching me?” the Overland Park sculptor asked an interpreter as he finished fashioning a pumpkin into a snaggle-toothed Orc from “The Lord of the Rings.”

“They think you’re a robot,” the woman said.

Yup. If you’ve never seen it before, extreme pumpkin carving is that cool.

OK, so most of the people in Hong Kong had never seen a pumpkin before, let alone the kind of intricately carved pumpkins that convinced them Garcia was controlled by a computer. But plenty of people in this country are equally as amazed by such pumpkin carving, with some believing such detailed creations could never be done by hand.

Oh, but they can. And this weekend you can see for yourself at the Glow Jack-O-Lantern Festival at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Mo., and OktoberFest at Prairiefire in Overland Park.

At the Glow Festival, 700 jack-o’-lanterns will light a flickering path through the gardens. The display also includes 25 specialty “Jumbo Jack” pumpkins weighing several hundred pounds each, hand-carved by pumpkin experts from throughout the region.

On Saturday, Prairiefire will host a pumpkin-carving demonstration by Idaho artist Brandy Davis. Davis is representing Villafane Studios, run by Ray Villafane, an Arizona sculptor whom the Wall Street Journal called “the Picasso of pumpkin carving.”

He is widely credited with popularizing the extreme-pumpkin-carving craze around 2009, and he has a connection to the Glow Festival. Here’s a look at a few of the expert carvers who will participate in this year’s festival.

A self-taught sculptor

Rudy Garcia, who will give a pumpkin-carving demonstration at the Glow Festival, knows Villafane well. The 52-year-old not only trained under him, he went with him to Hong Kong in 2013 as part of an all-star carving crew.

Extreme pumpkin carver Rudy Garcia, a sculptor from Overland Park, will give a pumpkin carving demonstration at Glow Jack-O-Lantern Festival on Saturday and Sunday at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Mo. Garcia, owner of Clayboy Creature Shop, an onl

“It was so cool when I first saw Ray (carving pumpkins). He encouraged me and said, ‘Why don’t you try it?’ 

So he did.

“When I first started doing this they were so primitive,” Garcia said. “It looked like someone hacked away at it with a machete.”

Today, Garcia is one of the top pumpkin-carving experts in the country, able to re-create virtually anything on a pumpkin.

A self-taught sculptor, Garcia had already honed his skills by working with clay for toy companies in St. Louis and New Jersey in the ’90s. Later he did freelance work for Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, Hallmark and more.

Today he sells many of his detailed clay creations, including monsters, aliens and “frozen face” characters, on his online store clayboycreatureshop.com.

Recently he carved a pumpkin into a smirking goblin.

In the basement studio of his Overland Park condo, he placed a heavy, oval-shaped pumpkin on a work desk under a bright light. Oval pumpkins give him more surface area to sculpt, while heavy pumpkins have thicker walls that allow a deeper carve without breaking through to the center.

Garcia did not hollow out the inside as most people do. Instead he dragged a ceramic potter’s tool over the surface. The tool removed the rind to reveal a bright, wet, orangey-yellow canvas. After smoothing the surface with a scouring pad, he made large cuts to “block in” the area for the nose and eyes. Then, slowly, he removed flesh with another carving tool until a face began to emerge.

Between cuts, he pushed in around the eyes with his thumbs to gauge the remaining thickness of the pumpkin wall.

The deeper his cuts, the sharper the face and more pronounced the shadows.

Garcia’s creations include Orcs, aliens, goblins, witches, skulls, werewolves and Jason from the “Friday the 13th” franchise. Sometimes people ask if he can carve their faces.

The answer: Sure, if you have the cash. He charges $150 to $400 for a custom-carved pumpkin. Typically he carves only about eight pumpkins per season.

It is meticulous work.

“All this time doing this I haven’t touched this area here,” he said, tapping the front of the flat, unfinished nose. “That’s the part that’s going to stick out the farthest. So it’s like taking everything from this point and pushing it back. … The face is always there. You’ve just got to move the stuff out of the way.”

Later, as he creates fine details — including wrinkles, skin folds and eye bags — he cuts repeatedly into the fruit like a dental hygienist scraping tartar from a tooth.

Extreme pumpkin carving is something anyone can learn to do, he claims: “You just have to practice.”

Inspired by Marilyn

For April Mazeikis, the romance with pumpkin carving started five years ago with Marilyn Monroe.

“Someone had carved Marilyn into a pumpkin, and I thought, ‘I think I can do that,’ ” the 36-year-old software analyst for Cerner said. “I tried, and I could.”

The Independence woman had always been artistic, but her talents were limited. While she had trouble creating original art, she could imitate existing works. She began carving pumpkins and posting pictures on her Facebook page.

Three years ago she caught the attention of an official at Powell Gardens, who asked her to carve the first Jumbo Jack for the Glow Festival.

Her carvings include Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Jackson, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining”), as well as her two children.

While Mazeikis is confident in her abilities, she was nervous when she found out Garcia would be carving at the festival.

“I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do that. He’s just so good!’ 

Mazeikis is good, too. Good enough that she also gets requests for custom-carved pumpkins.

“Mostly what I get is sports logos and grandmas wanting their grandkids’ pictures on pumpkins,” she said.

Her fee varies, depending on the complexity of the job.

Vegging out

Officially Charles Coker is a database administrator. But since he was in his 20s, the St. Joseph man said, his passion has been art.

“I consider myself a serious artist,” the 60-year-old said. “I just fell into carving pumpkins.”

Coker specializes in mixed-media creations, working with wood, stone, metal and found objects.

“The kids would take (my carved pumpkins) in to school,” he said. “Then they’d ask me to carve one for the PTA, so it just kind of grew.”

Coker has been demonstrating pumpkin carving at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival since the late ’90s. He also carves at First Fridays at the Hilliard Gallery, 1820 McGee St.

He often uses vegetables to decorate his pumpkins; broccoli for eyebrows, bell peppers for tongues.

Last year Powell Gardens gave him an all-white Jumbo Jack, and he turned it into a Royals-themed baseball.

And this year?

“I have no idea what I am going to carve until I get the pumpkin,” he said. “All I can say is it will probably be some kind of monster.”

Sounds about right for a festival whose theme is “Nature’s Nightmares.”

James A. Fussell: 816-234-4460, @jamesafussell

Pumpkin festivals

The Glow Jack-O-Lantern Festival runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Mo. In addition to more than 700 hand-carved jack-o’-lanterns, it features demonstrations, crafts and refreshments. Tickets, which may be purchased at the gate, are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 60 and up and $5 for children ages 5-12. See powellgardens.org/glow.

OktoberFest at Prairiefire is from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday at 135th and Nall in Overland Park. The free festival features demonstrations, live music, a beer garden, a petting zoo, face painting, balloon artists, a pie-eating contest and more. See visitprairiefire.com/event/prairiefire-octoberfest.

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