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With Halloween just around the corner, the frenzy to carve out the spookiest pumpkin has begun in earnest, all over the country. But very few people have the talent to transform the gnarly fruits into 3-D zombie masterpieces like pumpkin carver extraordinaire Ray Villafane, who showcased his superior skills last week, at New York Botanical Garden's Giant Pumpkin Carving Weekend.
Ray's team, which includes up and coming gourd artist Chris Viera began on October 18th, with a demonstration at the city's Grand Central Station. Thousands of commuters watched in awe as the master carvers kicked off the weekend by transforming a 1,496 lbs pumpkin from Edinburgh, PA, into an amazingly detailed carnivorous creature.
The following day, they moved to the New York Botanical Gardens where they continued to morph some grotesquely giant pumpkins into life-like haunted creatures. The centerpiece of the event was the world's largest pumpkin, a 2,032 pound behemoth from California that magically turned into a beehive with pumpkin wasps buzzing around, under Ray Villafane's expert carving knife.
By the time the weekend was over, the botanical garden was transformed into a spooky wonderland complete with life-size zombies, carnivorous plants and a splattering of other scary looking pumpkin creatures scattered all over the area. The carvings are part of the garden's annual Haunted Pumpkin Garden Festival, which will be open to the public until October 31st, and besides these scary beauties also includes many other intricately carved masterpieces ranging from scarecrows to snakes and even insects!
While Ray Villafane is now a professional pumpkin carver and travels the world showcasing his extraordinary talent, the path to this unusual career was quite accidental. A graduate of New York City's School of Visual Arts, Ray began his working life as an elementary school art teacher in Bellaire, Michigan.
Faced with a pumpkin carving project one Halloween, he decided to take a different approach by tackling it as though he was molding a clay sculpture, rather than carving a fruit. Ray thought the pumpkin turned out okay, but his kids begged to differ - They thought it was outstanding and kept bringing in pumpkins for him to carve. That's when Ray realized that he may have a hidden talent and began to offer his carvings to local hotels and restaurants.
He enjoyed it so much that he decided to try his hand at sculpting toys. He was so good that his first 'practice' sculpture of a Logan version of the X-Men character Wolverine that he created in 2004, was put into production by Marvel Comics. For the next two years, Ray designed many wax prototypes of toys and action figures of Marvel characters like Sabretooth, Magneto and The Punisher. In 2006, Ray was offered an exclusive contract by rival DC Comics, where he worked until 2010.
Meanwhile, pumpkin carving remained his favorite fall hobby but only the locals knew how good he was until 2007, when he was invited to Food Network's Outrageous Pumpkin Challenge and pitted against three professional carvers. Not only did Ray win, but the episode was so popular that he was invited to compete again in 2010. He was of course, still the best!
Finally realizing his true calling, Ray quit his full-time job at DC comics and began to increasingly focus on pumpkin carving. While he still does some freelance toy sculpting for companies like Hasbro and McFarlane Toys, he spends a large amount of his time showcasing his fruit carving talent all over the world. Given how eagerly fans wait to see his ghoulish creations each year, he definitely made the right choice.
Though his pumpkins may look out of this world, Ray who spends about two hours on each of the smaller masterpieces, says that he uses the most basic carving tools. His key to success is the fruit he selects - Big and heavy, so that there is plenty of flesh to sculpt with. He also prefers pumpkins that are gnarly with lots of lines and curves because they help add character to his creations.
And while the carvings resemble works of art, Ray rarely draws or even has a preconceived idea of what he is going to create, when he begins. He sometimes sketches an outline on the fruit, but most times, he just looks at the shape for inspiration.
The artist says that despite the fact that his extraordinary sculptures are short-lived and end up in the compost pile, he enjoys carving pumpkins more than anything else. Fortunately, there are plenty of photos and videos to admire! To see more of Ray's masterpieces and even get some carving tips, check out villafanestudios.com.
Resources: villafanestudios.com, nybg.org