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For These Sculptors,
The Medium Is Big,
Orange and Stinky

Mr. Moser's Masterpiece,
Huge Enough to Squash Him,
Is No Mere Jack-o'-Lantern
October 31, 2007; Page A1

GREAT VALLEY, N.Y. -- Muffled inside the 10-inch-thick walls of a 908-pound pumpkin, Patrick Moser's voice was an echoing blur.

"It's beautiful in here," he shouted. "It's like Carlsbad Caverns."

[Patrick Moser]

As a giant-pumpkin carver, Mr. Moser regularly ventures where no man has gone before. Carving the behemoths isn't just an art, he says, it's a personal odyssey. And this month, his journey has brought him to Pumpkinville, a rustic pumpkin farm tucked into a valley of the Allegheny Mountains, where he has been commissioned to sculpt a hulking pale orange specimen harvested by a nearby grower.

Cross-breeding and better growing techniques have created a new variety of monster pumpkins called Atlantic Giant. Backyard farmers across the country are competing in weigh-offs, and the giants keep getting bigger -- up to 1,689 pounds for the plumpest pumpkin this year. But after all the competitions are over, one question still looms: What to do with all this fruit the size of hot tubs?

One answer has emerged in a new kind of performance art. As more super-gourds become available each year, giant-pumpkin carvers are in demand at zoos, shopping malls, casinos and botanical gardens.

These are no triangle-eyed jack-o'-lanterns. These are gargantuan, gnarly and lopsided freaks of nature with shells up to a foot thick in places, and cavities big enough to contain a grown man. Transforming them into organic sculpture takes chisels, power tools and perseverance.

William Disbro
Mr. Moser completed "Rubin Grogsworth," at the Pumpkinville Farm in Great Valley, N.Y.

The Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas hired carver Gus Smithhisler of Marengo, Ohio, to sculpt more than a dozen giants for an autumn exhibit in its botanical garden. Horticultural director Audra Danzak says she was skeptical at first -- until she saw a picture of a lion's head Mr. Smithhisler had carved from a pumpkin. "It was quite spectacular," she said. Mr. Smithhisler was paid $1,500 a day to transform giant pumpkins into sculpted vistas of corn and leaves and wheat for the Bellagio.

Professional carver Hugh McMahon of New York specializes in etching portraits into his pumpkins. He is fielding a growing number of requests to do the faces of brides and grooms. "It's a new concept in wedding portraiture," he says.

Scott Cully of Ashland, Ore., grew pumpkins before he began carving them. His first carving was born after returning from a weigh-off with a 450-pound pumpkin in 1988. "My wife and I had this pumpkin, and we had two knives, and we had two bottles of great hard cider. We were really inspired," he says.

One of Mr. Cully's specialties is pumpkin totem poles, with three 1,000-pounders stacked into a tower. But his dream is to carve the first working Cinderella's carriage using two actual pumpkins.

Many giant carvers compare what they do to working in stone or wood. But they face one problem other sculptors don't: Their artwork can rot before they even finish it. Bacteria will quickly liquefy a pumpkin into a stinking, gooey mess. Professional carver Steve Dahlke, of Rosemont, Ill., recalls one year when a restaurant displayed his pumpkin sculpture under hot lights, hastening its decay. "I had to use a power-vac to suck out the slime," he says.

To Mr. Moser, there are few things nastier than the smell of a spoiled pumpkin -- "like a rotting beaver on the highway," he says. To preserve his work as long as possible -- for weeks and sometimes months -- he has developed an "embalming" process in which he bathes his finished sculpture in antibacterial soap, bleach and Tilex bathroom cleaner.

"Most people have no idea what goes into carving a giant pumpkin," notes the 40-year-old carver from Jamestown, N.Y. Before he can begin to carve at Pumpkinville, a farm that invites the public in every fall to stroll the grounds, sip hot cider and pick out pumpkins for Halloween, Mr. Moser must first examine the pumpkin from the inside.

Earlier this month a tractor lifted one atop a sturdy wood frame. Then, lying on his back below the fruit, Mr. Moser took nearly an hour to hack his way in. Shards of orange pumpkin flesh flew through the air, clotting his hair and sticking to his brow as he hewed a large manhole in the bottom using first a kitchen knife, then a large handsaw, and finally a crowbar.

It's dangerous work, he explained, grunting and panting as he heaved on the crowbar to dislodge a large piece: "One slip, and you could have a 200-pound chunk-o'-pumpkin comin' at you from four feet overhead."

Climbing up inside the pumpkin, with only his legs visible below, he is able to clean out the pulp and seeds, size up each internal crevice and gauge the depth of the shell in different places. Such knowledge will determine what shape the pumpkin ultimately takes on the outside. "The pumpkin tells me what it wants to be," he says.

Mr. Moser's trademark is the "Grumpkin" -- the great pumpkin personality he finds trapped inside every giant. He selects colorful names for his Grumpkins characters. At Pumpkinville, his subject was christened "Rubin Grogsworth."

The crowd began to gather early Saturday for the giant pumpkin weigh-off contest. On a table next to the still-faceless Rubin, Mr. Moser set out his briefcase of carving tools: chisels and clay-sculpting loops, lemon zesters and super-sharp Microplane graters. For his Grumpkin face, he then removed all the pumpkin skin and shaped smooth bulging eyes accented by a big nose and a broad, toothy grin.

As Rubin emerged slowly through the course of the day, Mr. Moser was both sculptor and entertainer, telling pumpkin stories and fielding questions from spectators, who crowded around in awe. To answer the most common question -- Is it real? -- he let children see for themselves. The carving is slimy and cold, "like a corpse," he said. "The kids touch it and there's an instant, visceral reaction and boom, they know it's a real pumpkin."

He lectures his audience on the differences in pumpkin flesh. Some pumpkins carve like cold butter, some like hard oak, but Rubin is smooth and firm, more like a carrot. Still, it took Mr. Moser two days to finish.

Though huge to most people, Rubin is just a runt compared with some of the other giants being grown. Mr. Moser fantasizes about carving the first 2,000-pounder. "And I want to do it in a refrigerated cooler," he said. "Because that baby's going to take a week."

Write to Susan Warren at

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