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October 23, 2014

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Pumpkin sculptors create eerie art form

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Steve Marcus

Pumpkin artists Ray Villafane and Andy Bergholtz pose during a pumpkin-carving exhibition in the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. The pumpkins will be displayed at Heidi Klum’s Halloween party and other Halloween events at Tao and Lavo.

Pumpkin Artist Ray Villafane

Pumpkin artists Ray Villafane and Andy Bergholtz pose during a pumpkin-carving exhibition in the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. The pumpkins will be displayed at Heidi Klum's Halloween party and other Halloween events at Tao and Lavo. Launch slideshow »

Amazing Pumpkin Art by Ray Villafane

Launch slideshow »

Halloween front porches across America feature some sort of traditional jack-o-lantern: triangle eyes, a toothy grin and maybe a small nose.

These aren’t that type of pumpkin.

Ray Villafane and Andy Bergholtz spent Wednesday afternoon carving pumpkins at the Grand Canal Shoppes. Carving isn’t really the right word. They were sculpting pumpkins.

The end result is a dynamic 3D image protruding from the gourd.

The 10 pumpkins are destined for this weekend’s Halloween events at Tao and Lavo nightclubs, including a party hosted by Heidi Klum.

Villafane has been carving pumpkins for more than a decade and recently worked on projects in New York City and Washington, D.C. Last year he carved at the White House.

But this is his first installation in Las Vegas. “It’s kind of a unique opportunity to carve for such a high-profile event,” he said.

Each pumpkin takes four or five hours to create, although Villafane says he sometimes spends more than 10 hours on a project.

He hopes to get a whole team of pumpkin sculptors together and next year create a giant haunted pumpkin patch filled with their creations. “So people can experience the whole thing, not just see decorations at a party,” Villafane said.

For now, he and Bergholtz are entertaining shoppers at the Venetian, some of whom recognized Villafane from a recent appearance on Food Network.

Bergholtz is a longtime sculptor, but Villafane just recently persuaded him to try his hand at pumpkin carving.

“It is just sculpting in a different medium,” Bergholtz said.

“It’s not much different,” Villafane added. “There’s a small learning curve.”

So what’s the trick to sculpting a pumpkin? We asked Villafane for his top five tips:

      1. Pick the right pumpkin

      "The No. 1 most important tip, above everything else is to get a good pumpkin," Villafane said.

      He drove 11 hours each way to Northern California to hand select his pumpkins from a grower there. He picks up and inspects 20 to 30 pumpkins for every one he likes, he said.

      It has to be heavy for its size, indicating that the skin is thick. "That's very important," he said.

      2. Push the limits

      To make the image as 3D as possible, you have to carve as deep as you can, he said.

      "Use all of the material," he said.

      Even after more than 10 years of carving pumpkins, Villafane said he still sometimes goes too deep and cuts into the center, which isn't good, but it's important to push through as far as possible.

      3. Use a point of reference

      It's possible to just think of a picture and start carving, but Villafane suggests having a picture or object to use as a guide.

      While working on his third pumpkin for Tao, he had a picture of a face on his iPhone, which was sitting right next to the pumpkin and occasionally ended up with some pumpkin shavings on it.

      4. Adapt

      The artist has to be flexible as sculpting progresses, Villafane said. "It does not always go according to plan, so unless you have unlimited pumpkins and unlimited time to start over, you've got to adapt," he said.

      5. Have the right tools

      This is a bit of a shameless plug, for Villafane sells a tool kit and instructional DVD on his website.

      More importantly, he doesn't use a huge kitchen knife or anything with a serrated edge. The goal isn't to chop up the pumpkin, but to slowly whittle away the skin.

      He recommends using tools with fine points, like an X-acto knife and a paring knife, and various sizes of clay ribbon loops.

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    1. I guess pumpkin sculpting is very much like ice sculpting. Too bad they rot after a couple weeks. Just wondering if the artists tried shellac or other forms of preservative to lengthen their "shelf life" much like small gourds which are lacquered. Will this technique work with pumpkins as well? I hate to see all these beautiful creations and hours of work go into the garbage can.