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Thai Art Gives Face Lift to Traditional Jack-O’-Lanterns

October 30, 1987

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Pam Maneeratana gets away with some rather ghoulish effects with her set of small, curved knives. And people can’t wait to watch her do it again.

″A sharp cut is a must,″ she says. ″Once you press your knife in, don’t pull it back whether or not that one is the wrong cut. You just have to go for it, throw that piece away and start another one with the new lesson.″

Ms. Maneeratana, 35, says she may be one of fewer than a dozen people in the world who are masters of kaesaluk, the 700-year-old Thai art of carving fruits and vegetables.

At Halloween, her intricately carved jack-o’-lanterns with demonic faces can make your average grinning gourd look as insipid as a smile button.

The evil-looking creatures are created by hundreds of precise, curving cuts, so many that the pumpkin almost appears in imminent danger of collapsing. A closer look shows that many cuts do not slice all the way through the flesh, but give the illusion of doing so.

A large pumpkin takes about two hours to carve. So elaborate is the knifework that people will stop in the restaurant where she works and argue whether the art emerging from the lumpy vegetables and her flying hands is real.

″It doesn’t impress them because they don’t believe it,″ said Ms. Maneeratana, shrugging.

Ms. Maneeratana has had to modify the art considerably to suit American tastes.

People in the United States seem to be least impressed with her most elaborate work - very small but finely detailed flowers made from bits of fruits and vegetables. One small flower can take an hour to carve.

Americans tend to like animals, fish and faces better than the flowers and vines she was trained to create.

″In Thailand we like to do a small thing to show how good you are. But I find that in this country, you have to get the biggest thing you can,″ she said.

In Thailand, kaesaluk also is supposed to delight all of the senses, including taste. There, such carved fruits and vegetables are intended to be eaten along with the meal. In the United States, people want to carry home what they consider to be garnishes or decorations in doggie bags.

Ms. Maneeratana said the key to success when working with a medium as transient as fruits and vegetables is a quick and sure hand.

Strict concentration is important. Kaesaluk is not the kind of hobby you can practice while watching television, unless you want to become an amputee.

Ms. Maneeratana said she finds the work therapeutic.

″To me, each cut of mine is like conquering. I can’t beat anybody else, so I beat my vegetables,″ she said.

She doesn’t draw designs on the fruits or vegetables before taking a knife to them, although she sometimes creates an idea on paper.

She first gets the desired shape she wants in the vegetable, then starts on the largest details and works down to finer details. No two designs are exactly alike.

″When you work on fruits and vegetables, they never come in the same size,″ she said.

She uses a series of knives with curved blades, the largest of which is no bigger than a paring knife. Some knives can be obtained only on special order from Bangkok, where she lived before coming to the United States eight years ago.

Kaesaluk is almost a dying art, she said. It supposedly started about 700 years ago when one of the wives of the king wanted to find a new way to please her husband. The carved fruits and vegetables were such a hit that the king declared kaesaluk an art form to be taught to women of the best families.

It is now taught only to privileged women in Bangkok, Ms. Maneeratana said.

″This is the kind of thing women outside of Bangkok have no chance to learn,″ she said. ″No men in Thailand would do that.″

She began learning kaesaluk in finishing school when she was 15 years old. Only 10 teachers are considered masters of the art, and they are getting older, she said.

Ms. Maneeratana teaches the art in the Leon County Adult Education program. Some of her students have become quite adept, she said.

″Anyone can, if you have the patience,″ she said.

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