Don't expect to find your average jack-o'-lantern in Griffon Ramsey's yard.
The award-winning Austin-based chain saw artist, who has built an international fan base around her imaginative, intricate wood and ice sculptures, has found a new medium for her power tools: pumpkins.
She recently showcased her skills as one of seven carvers competing in the Food Network's Outrageous Pumpkins series. The four-part competition brought artists from around the country to compete in outside-the-box pumpkin carving and sculpting challenges. While the concept may sound simple enough, the challenges contestants face during the series are far from it. As Ramsey explained, "These aren't your standard pumpkins you're gonna see on people's porches. These are professionals, who are doing really outrageous things, pretty crazy stuff, with special effects and multiple pumpkin builds."
To be sure, the designs the carvers produced on the show are likely miles away from the grinning jack-o'-lantern on your neighbors' stoop. In the show's first episode, contestants were challenged to create a scene inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, and Ramsey was assigned envy. She stacked pumpkins on top of one another to create two columns that served as her canvases, then carved a detailed, delicate scene of women, green with envy, walking down a cobblestone street and gazing back longingly on a happy couple kissing under a street light. The judges were impressed with the effect of the carving and told her the scene looked like a painting. Ramsey was concerned that her carvings were too simple, "but it wasn't simple, because it [took] so much thinking to try to do that sculpting in reverse," she explained.
How does one become an expert pumpkin carver? For Ramsey, it started as a personal Halloween activity. Every October for the last few years, she has posted videos of her own intricate pumpkin carvings to her YouTube channel. Much like her wooden sculptures, her pumpkin carvings are often inspired by pop culture. In years past, she's made pumpkin carvings of It's Pennywise the Clown as well as the Demogorgon inspired by Stranger Things. Those videos caught the eye of show producers who reached out and invited her to compete.
Ramsey was excited to receive the invitation and a little bit surprised. Despite her personal pumpkin carving projects, up to that point she'd had limited professional experience with the medium. Nevertheless she was eager to take on the new challenge and build her skills, even though she says becoming a contestant felt a little bit like "jumping into the deep end."
Yet, Ramsey says she's grateful for what she calls a "magical" experience of competing on the show. "You throw a bunch of carvers together, and it's such a weird art form, you bond with people," she said, adding that she was inspired by the other contestants, and loved seeing their designs. "It was just a great opportunity to meet a bunch of really interesting and talented people and get advice."
For Ramsey, who is known for her live chain saw demonstrations, translating those skills to the pumpkin medium got a little messy at times. In one memorable moment early in the show, Ramsey's was left completely covered in pumpkin splatter. Her trusty tools were "not maybe the most practical," she admits, "but I will say that they worked pretty fast."
Ramsey's new foray into pumpkin carving is keeping her busy this season. Aside from the show, this October she'll be collaborating with New Belgium Brewing Company to create a custom Voodoo Ranger pumpkin carving for Halloween, and hosting demonstrations at Pioneer Farms. In a Halloween unlike any other, when social distancing means many of our traditions will look different this year, that shouldn't stop us from getting into the Halloween spirit. Whether you are an aspiring pumpkin sculptor or a first-time carver, Ramsey's designs are sure to help raise your spirits.
The Austin chain saw artist has some quick tips for making your squash super-scary:
• For pumpkin carvers at home, Ramsey says that jack-o'-lanterns – the traditional lighted pumpkin – are best displayed on porches.
• Spend some time picking out the pumpkin you are going to carve, she advises. If you're planning to carve a jack-o'-lantern, try to find a pumpkin that's not too heavy. Lighter-weight pumpkins typically have thinner walls and will be easier to carve into.
• If you want to try your hand at building a pumpkin sculpture, using multiple squashes, make sure you're selecting heavier, sturdier pumpkins that will be able to support some weight.
• Feel like upping your carving game this Halloween? Ramsey recommends attempting a silhouette design over your standard scary face. Finding a stencil online can also help with the carving process for those who need some extra support.
• Ramsey also encourages home carvers to have fun with the design process. When it comes to her own designs, she said, "I like to combine ideas that don't necessarily go together." Rather than searching for images of carved pumpkins, she creates mood boards for her designs that evoke the theme and style she wants her sculptures and carvings to reflect. "Whatever job I'm doing, I'll have an initial flash of my mind," she explained. "I'll start searching [for images] and then I'll go down this rabbit hole."
• With an elaborate design, Ramsey said that, much like how she approaches her work as a subtractive sculpture in wood, she thinks of her pumpkin carvings in reverse, backward-planning each cut and incision to get to the final project.
• And always keep in mind how the pumpkin will be illuminated. Ramsey explained, "Think about the carvings as light."
See episodes of Outrageous Pumpkins on the Food Network, and catch Griffon Ramsey live in action at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms’ Texas Chainsaw Mask-erade (Oct. 24, 6pm), and on Halloween night as she gives a 3D pumpkin carving demonstration at the farm’s Trick or Treat Halloween Finale. See www.pioneerfarms.org.
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