Traditional Halloween pumpkins get an amazing new life when they are Ray Villafane’s hands. The master pumpkin carver creates amazing masterpieces that have been showcased on TV, the White House, and even Heidi Klum’s legendary Halloween parties! We spoke exclusively with Ray at the New York Botanical Garden, where he and his team were carving massive pumpkins about, what else, pumpkins, family, and why he’s carving a regular pumpkin for his own house for Halloween.
I know that you work year-round with your various styles of art, including sand art but I would imagine that fall is your busy season, right?
Absolutely. We’re here at the New York Botanical Garden carving these huge pumpkins. I normally carve smaller pumpkins that people would buy and put on their porch.
What’s your style when it comes to pumpkins?
I like something that looks alive and animated. I don’t really care for it to glow. Some of them look nice lit up, but that’s not my goal to light them up. One of the things that prevents me from lighting them up is that I carve so deep, right up to the point where it’s paper thin. So if I go in to hollow it out, it could stand a chance of collapsing.
When you were younger, did you the traditional jack-o-lantern? Triangle eyes and nose?
Yeah, absolutely. It wasn’t until my 20s that I decided to try something different. It was a failure, and several years later I tried again with different types of tools, and it was much better.
What’s been your most favorite pumpkin to carve?
The cool thing about that is that it changes every few months, every season really. And within a season, hopefully I get a new one. So far, that’s proven to be the case. I try to do something different. Right now, I’m trying to carve pumpkins that you can interact with. If you take a photo with it, it has the impressions of fingers in it, so you can squeeze its cheeks and it looks like someone is squishing the face. And the pumpkin looks malleable. That’s what I’ve been playing with; I might get bored with it.
I love these large pumpkins. If I had access to them, it would be a blast. It’s not every day that you get access to a pumpkin this big.
Is it intimidating to see something that big in size?
It was when I got here! There’s no stencil, I was a little nervous for sure.
Are there supports in the pumpkin?
Yeah, there are steel supports everywhere.
I would think that every time is like game time. You don’t really know what you’re going to get until you get in there.
Yeah, when you cut into it, you don’t know how the pumpkin’s meat is going to be, if it’s going to be hard or soft. So that can happen with any pumpkin. At least these are more forgiving because you have more flesh to work with, 8-12 inches or so, whereas with a regular pumpkin, you might have an inch and a half, maybe 2.
And that’s the most important thing. Carving the style of pumpkins that I carve, nothing is more important than a thick pumpkin. After I find a thick pumpkin, then I have a preference for shape, and obviously a cool-looking stem, but paramount is a thick pumpkin.
Halloween has to be big for you. How do you celebrate it in your own house?
We’ll definitely do trick-or-treating. When I left it was 100 degrees but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels beautiful. One year I was carving at the White House, so I missed Halloween altogether. I do carve pumpkins but not over-the-top things, just a pumpkin to put in front of the house.
But isn’t there pressure on you, especially if the neighbors know who you are?
That’s why I give them a warning! [laughs] Go to my website if you want to see a good pumpkin.
Do you ever use pumpkins for cooking?
No, no, I don’t cook. My wife does.
How do you balance it all, between your work and family life with 6 kids?
I’m married to my best friend so it makes it easier. It does get crazy, no sleep, just go, go, go. I’ve been on network shows so I’m gone for a bit, but a few years ago I realized that I had a global following for my pumpkins, so maybe I should be proactive. It’s non-stop though.
But it’s a good non-stop.
Oh yeah, it’s fun. I’m just playing. That, that doesn’t feel like work. Obviously, if you play for a long time, you get exhausted, but I’ll tell you what. I can be here all day; my back could be killing me, but if someone showed me a really cool pumpkin, I’d want to carve it right now. That’s how much I enjoy it.
Do any of your kids show any talent towards pumpkin carving?
Yes, the two little ones really enjoy it and show the artistic vibe for sure. They can carve and if I carve a pumpkin and make a mistake or even if I make a nice one, after I take a photograph, I’ll give it to them to finish and help me.
What advice would you give to people who would like to improve their pumpkin carving game?
People can go to my website. I have tutorials. The thing about my style of carving is that I rarely use a knife for the pumpkins I carve. It’s a lot of loose tools. There are various tutorials, from simple ones for kids to professional sculptors. I don’t care what age you are; carving pumpkins is fun to do.