In the weeks leading up to his appearance at Cowtoberfest in Fair Oaks, Indiana, Jon Neill started training. He ran daily, clocking in around five-and-a-half miles per workout. He dropped 20 pounds, which he says gave him the energy to take on the gig. Also, running got his arms moving fast and that would ultimately help him dig into the 850 pound white pumpkin that he would sculpt into a monster in six hours.
By now, Neill is used to the pressure. He spent two seasons competing on the Food Network challenge Halloween Wars. In the show, teams consisting of a pumpkin carver, cake sculptor and candy maker create spooky, edible displays. During a small window of time, Neill must turn a pumpkin into a sarcophagus or a creepy doll's head and those elements somehow have to work with figures made of sugar and cake or Rice Krispy treats. (Neill's team won this year's battle.)
Originally from Kansas City, Neill grew up carving pumpkins. His family used to grow them. Eventually, the regular jack-o-lanterns he made morphed into scarier creatures. However, it wasn't until a few years ago that the San Fernando Valley resident got into the professional pumpkin carving game. A friend asked him to audition for Halloween Wars as a cake artist. Since cakes aren't his specialty, he aimed for a pumpkin carving spot. Neill made two time-lapse videos showing himself at work. One went to the network for the audition. The other found a home on YouTube. "All of a sudden, I was getting thousands of hits," says Neill.
He wasn't sure if this was a "fluke," or if there actually was an interest in pumpkin carving. Turns out it was the latter.
For Neill, the Halloween season starts in August. That's when he makes the first of many trips to Ventura County. He'll hit up the McGrath Brother's Great Pacific Pumpkins and Pete's Pumpkin Patch looking for the "pick of the litter" so he can start carving and sculpting. Neill is particular about his pumpkins. "I look for pumpkins with character," he says. "If I can see a hint of an expression or an attitude in a pumpkin, I look for that to get one to carve. I also look for something that has more of a presence to it, something that I feel that people would want to see me carve."
During the Halloween season, Neill's schedule is packed tight. On his few days off, he'll head back up to the pumpkin patches to replenish his stock. He appears at Halloween events across the country to carve in front of the crowd. He also books jobs at private parties in the Los Angeles area, where he entertains the crowd as he works.
"The thing that is best about pumpkin carving is that everyone has carved a pumpkin," says Neill. "We all share this common thread. It basically brings us together."
Still, not too many people can carve pumpkins with big, wrinkly faces and mouths full of creepy-crooked teeth. Even fewer people can take that skill and turn it into a performance. Over the phone, with a touch of a cold in his voice, Neill sounds a little surprised that people will pull up lawn chairs to watch him work for hours.
There's an athleticism to what this artist does. Sometimes, the pumpkins are massive. That 850-pound beast of a gourd in Indiana wasn't Neill's biggest task to date. (He estimates the weight of his biggest pumpkin at around 1700 pounds.) "You don't want to be sitting in a chair, noodling away with tiny tools," he says.
Neill works big, with tools that he has custom-made. "I try to make it a show," he says. Pumpkin carving can incorporate feats of strength and endurance. It is a spectacle.
Neill has worked in film and television for twenty years. He makes small props, draws a lot of fictional police sketches and comes up with concept designs. He's an artist whose work has been seen repeatedly over the years. Recently, you may have seen his props on Modern Family. Or perhaps you have actually seen him drawing a police sketch on The Bridge. Yet the response that he gets for pumpkin carving is quite different. "I've never seen that before," he says.
This is ephemeral art. Neill might treat the pumpkins with anti-bacterial spray and avoid cutting out the seeds, but, eventually, pumpkins rot. "I don't know if I really like the idea that it's gone forever after that," says Neill.
However, there's more to the art than the finished product. "I think that the thing that I like the most is more the relationship that you're having with that pumpkin at the time that you're creating it," says Neill. "If there are people watching it, all of a sudden they have a relationship with it."
Neill's pumpkins have created enough of a stir that he now sells pumpkin ornaments on his website and at events like Son of Monsterpalooza. He's looking to expand the merchandise and maybe branch out into other holidays as well.
Even though Neill's pumpkin carving only lasts for a season, it's become his calling card. Sometimes, says Neill, "you find something that gravitates towards you and resonates with everyone."
While Neill says that he has "no idea" what next Halloween will have in store, it's probably safe to say that there will be pumpkins.
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