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5,000 carved Halloween pumpkins light up Minnesota Zoo for first time

October 5, 2018

Michelangelo’s David is there on a glowing orange orb, as is the Mona Lisa taking a selfie. Albert Einstein peers out into the dark, while James Dean smirks and the Avengers stand ready to do battle.

The figures are carved into real pumpkins that are artfully arranged by the thousands — hanging from trees, on the ground and up on pedestals — along a quarter-mile trail at the Minnesota Zoo.

The gourds will be glimmering, lit from within by LED lights, every night through Halloween as part of the zoo’s new Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular.

As the more than 5,000 carved pumpkins begin to mold or end up as squirrel food, event organizers will pull them from the path, toss them in the compost and replace them with new ones. They expect to go through more than 20,000 before the month’s end.

During a preview night Wednesday, visitors gasped at carvings. Parents pointed and identified figures for their kids. The program’s theme is “A Walk in Time,” and it’s part history lesson, part art exhibit and part spooky light show. The giant carved pumpkins show different figures throughout time, from the age of the dinosaurs to present-day pop culture, with music to match.

“Omigod, is that beautiful,” said one visitor, checking out a rendition of the Titanic on the side of a pumpkin.

Kids’ voices rose the loudest in front of pumpkins decorated with dinosaurs, with shouts of “This is awesome!”

This is the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular’s first appearance in Minnesota.

The event, which is run by Passion for Pumpkins, started as a fundraiser for the school system in the small town of Oxford, Mass., in the 1980s, said Travis Reckner, the company’s president.

Reckner’s dad was inspired to create a pumpkin show after seeing a huge display in rural Vermont. A former mail carrier, he recruited friends, relatives and neighbors to create their own extravaganza.

It grew to be so popular that it moved into the woods near the town’s high school and then to Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I. In 2013, the company launched another spectacular in Louisville, Ky.

They reached out to the Minnesota Zoo this year in part because one of their best and longtime pumpkin artists, Katie Schreiner, moved from Louisville to Audubon, Minn., last fall.

“She said, ‘Unless you bring the show to Minnesota, I can’t do it,’ ” Reckner recalled.

The company had been thinking about expanding, and were hoping to find an interested zoo. They found one — in Apple Valley.

“I called Katie, and I said, ‘You’re never going to believe this. We’re bringing the pumpkins to Minnesota!’ ” Reckner said.

That certain glow

Schreiner, now the art director for the spectacular at the Minnesota Zoo, is looking forward to creating some of her favorite pumpkin art during the show.

“I love drawing and carving dinosaurs,” she said. “It’s all about contrasts and highlights, and those scales you get to carve out look amazing.”

Passion for Pumpkins has developed its own style of jack-o’-lantern art, which is more relief sculpture than carving, Schreiner explained. The entire process takes about six to eight hours for each large, artistic pumpkin, and they don’t cut holes all the way through the gourds, but scrape and sculpt the outer layers before scooping out the insides.

The first step is to choose an image with a lot of contrast, Schreiner said.

“You want really bright brights and dark darks, and you’ll boost the contrast, just to tweak the image so that it will really pop off the pumpkin,” she said.

Then, they project the image on the gourd to get an idea of where it should be placed.

“Each pumpkin is unique. They have their own warts and divots,” she said. “That adds to the 3-D effect.”

They draw pen lines and dots to sketch the image before filling in dark areas with a Sharpie. Then, they take Q-tips and alcohol and blend the ink, almost like watercolor painting.

The next step is to scrape, carve and sculpt the image, using custom carving tools as well as paring knives, clay sculpting tools, even sandpaper. Once the pumpkin is lit, the artwork glows.

Pumpkin logistics

Before the show’s start, Passion for Pumpkins artists in Kentucky prepped 10 tons of the art-covered pumpkins. The company shipped them north to be scooped clean and installed in the zoo’s woods.

For these large showstoppers, Passion for Pumpkins uses Big Max and Prizewinner pumpkin varieties, which are known for their smooth, glossy skin and red-orange color, explained co-owner Paul Cadieux, who went to high school with Reckner and has been involved with jack-o’-lantern shows since he was a kid.

The company sourced smaller pumpkins from Minnesota growers for the standard jack-o’-lanterns with triangle eyes and gap-toothed grins that fill in the spectacular’s background, hanging from trees and glowing along the path.

They expect to use about 4,000 local pumpkins before the show ends, and will continue to ship thousands more of the big ones north from Kentucky.

Schreiner will be supervising about a dozen Minnesota artists on site at the zoo to create more masterpieces as the original ones rot and wither.

“They don’t last very long. Maybe a week or so,” Reckner said.

“Getting it up and built is a feat. That’s one thing. But maintaining it for the month is where it gets tough.”

Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726

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