If on a cold and dark October night you find your nightmares haunted by wicked faces, ghoulish specters, and hideous grinsall emerging from prosy orange pumpkinsthen you've probably seen the work of Ray Villafane and Andy Bergholtz, creative partners and principal sculptors for Villafane Studios. Bergholtz and Villafane's intricate, terrifying, eye-poppingly beautiful pumpkin sculptures have appeared everywhere from the Travel Channel to the Food Network's Halloween Wars, and with their fellow sculpture artists Trevor Grove, Chris Vierra, and Alfred Paredes, they've produced pumpkin art for high-profile clients ranging from Warner Brothers to Heidi Klum.
Like many American success stories, Villafane's started small. "Thirteen years ago, when I was a K-12 art teacher, one of the kids grew a big pumpkin and I asked him to bring it in so I could try carving it. It didn't turn out like the ones I do today, but it was good enough that that was how it started: I'd come into class and there'd be a dozen pumpkins waiting for me. It became a tradition at the school, and over the years it gave me some practice. It was the spark that made me realize that I might like sculpture."
Villafane moved on from teaching into commercial sculpting work, which was when he met Bergholtz ("Business stuff aside, Andy's easily my best friend") and also began to realize the potential in pumpkins. "When I became a commercial sculptor, I'd already been doing pumpkins for a while. Granted, they weren't at the level that they are now, but when I began sculpting, they started getting better. What I realized when I was sculpting for Marvel and Warner Brothers and all these big companies, was that I was getting more attention for the pumpkins. There's a much broader fan base that the pumpkins appealed to. When I was hired to do Heidi Klum's Halloween party, Andy gave it a try with me, and it was a natural fit, and it was super-fun to do. And because things continued to grow so much, I started thinking bigger."
We caught up with both sculptors as they were preparing to take part in a marathon sculpting session at New York City's Grand Central Terminal, carving one pumpkin that tipped the scales at a record-breaking 1,872 pounds. Their life-size zombie sculpture, created entirely from pumpkins, is the centerpiece of a scary seasonal exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden through October 31.
View a slideshow of Villafane's amazing pumpkin sculptures here, including photos of the creative team at work on the year's largest pumpkin.
Gourmet Live: You've both worked in a variety of different mediums and with many different materials. What about pumpkins makes them special to work with?
Andy Bergholtz: From an artistic point of view, pumpkins are extremely rewarding to work with. There are not many other mediums that are as large and fast as pumpkins are by nature. For example, within a couple hours I can create a larger-than-life character in a pumpkin, which would have taken me five times as long to do in clay or any other medium. Aside from the versatility, the uniqueness of the art form is also a huge part of the draw. In over 10 years of sculpting professionally, not a single one of my "commercial" sculptures has ever inspired the same excitement with viewers as my pumpkins have. And it's not because the pumpkins are better-executed sculptures, it's because there is simply something more intriguing about temporary art like this. Everyone has carved a jack-o'-lantern before, or at least watched someone do it, so this is a medium that most people can instantly relate to. We see beautiful sculpture every day and don't realize it—from the action figures on a shelf in a toy store, to the beautiful hood ornament on a sports car, to the decorative molding on the ceiling of your favorite Italian restaurant. Sculpture is everywhere, but a lifelike character carved from a gourd is definitely not something you see every day! It's a fresh art form that captures the imagination and is rewarding on so many levels—how could I not love it?
GL: What do you look for when you're choosing a good carving pumpkin?
Ray Villafane: From the standpoint of the actual material, in terms of how it carves, they really do carve beautifully. Every pumpkin's different—some might be too stringy or too dry—but if you can find a good pumpkin, it's a great material. The only obstacle is that it's hollow, so you can't carve too deep. The deeper you carve, the more dimension you get, but because they're hollow, that's something you have to work around. You don't know for sure when you begin how much rind you have to work with. When you pick a pumpkin up, you try to find one that's heavy for its size; that's a good indication that it's likely to be thicker. When I go to pick a pumpkin, I don't care about how cool the stem is or the shape of it. The number-one factor I look for is how heavy for its size it is.