“The bigger, the better—and smooth” is Amie Villiger Harris’s definition of the perfect pumpkin.
She compares finding her ideal orange canvas to the scene in Christmas Vacation in which Clark Griswold finds the perfect tree. “The perfect pumpkin will speak to you,” Villiger Harris, BA/BFA’13, says.
The IU Southeast grad has been carving pumpkins for the Louisville Jack O’Lantern Spectacular since 2014. She landed the gig after replying to a Craigslist post.
“Always a bit scary,” Villiger Harris says when recalling her hesitancy to apply for a job through a website infamous for its scams. To her surprise, it was the real deal.
The Spectacular, a month-long event at Iroquois Park in Louisville, Ky., features more than 5,000 pumpkins—roughly 100 of which are intricately designed and carved by 20–25 local artists.
“There is an overall theme for each show, and the trail is divided up into smaller themed sections,” explains Villiger Harris. “[For example,] this year’s theme was Changing the Channel: A Television Timeline, so I carved a Buffy the Vampire Slayer pumpkin for the ’90s TV section of the trail.”
The Jack O’Lantern Spectacular originated in 1988 as a small event run by the Reckner family in Oxford, Mass. The Reckners have since co-founded Passion for Pumpkins Inc., the multimedia production company behind the Spectaculars that take place annually in three cities across the country—Providence, R.I.; Apple Valley, Minn.; and Louisville.
In 2019, Villiger Harris, now a pumpkin-carving veteran, was presented with the challenge of carving a 1,450-pound pumpkin. She chose to reproduce The Four Seasons, a 16th-century sculpture series by Jean Goujon. The pumpkin, which depicted four figures—spring, summer, fall, and winter—bordered by the 12 zodiac signs, took several weeks to complete.
“I had to use a stepladder to get to the top, and [the pumpkin] could only be moved via forklift,” she says.
Black permanent marker and alcohol-ink markers in various shades of gray are Villiger Harris’s drawing instruments of choice. She freehand draws her designs, which can take anywhere from hours to days to complete. The carving phase takes about half that time. But unlike your typical jack-o’-lantern, these pumpkins are carved no deeper than an inch.
“For carving, I use a linocut tool, sandpaper, nails, screwdrivers, and bobby pins,” she explains. “An average-sized and average-complexity pumpkin might take six hours to draw and three to carve.”
Villiger Harris, who is a skilled muralist, attributes her ability to develop creative ideas and translate them onto a canvas, the side of a building, or a pumpkin, to her time at IU Southeast.
“I learned so many technical artistic skills [at IU]. I left with the ability to make the art I want, the way I want,” she says.
Once an artist is finished carving, the pumpkin is gutted just hours before being placed on the 1/3-mile-long trail.
But sometimes, tragedy strikes. It’s not uncommon for a pumpkin to break while being gutted, or in Villiger Harris’s experience, roll away. In 2018, she had to completely redo her Chewbacca pumpkin after it rolled off a cart.
“It’s always a sad day when you drop one,” she says with a laugh. The artists try not to get too attached to their pumpkins—between weather and hungry squirrels, they typically have a short lifespan.
“The most challenging thing is also what I like most about doing pumpkin art. It’s ephemeral, temporary,” Villiger Harris says. “I might spend days on a pumpkin, only for it to rot and return to the Earth in a couple of days. It can be bittersweet.”
Because pumpkins must be replaced so often—weekly, and sometimes daily—those who visit at the beginning of the Spectacular are likely to see an entirely different trail of pumpkins compared to those attending in the event’s final days.
Villiger Harris creates anywhere from 15 to 20 pumpkins each year. Her most challenging to date was a depiction of Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle that she created in 2017.
“Anything architectural or geometric with a lot of straight lines is harder to do. It takes extra time and patience to try to put straight lines on a curved surface,” she says. “I’ve kind of avoided castles ever since.”
An estimated 75,000 people walk past Villiger Harris’s pumpkin art every year—something only artists whose works hang in high-traffic galleries get to say.
“I look forward to the Halloween season every year. I still get just as enthused and delighted as when I [carved] my very first intricate pumpkin—a mammoth,” she says. “Working at the pumpkin studio with all the other artists on this fabulous, seasonal art show is like nothing else.”