Its origins are obscure. The Irish say a man named Jack started it. He was too stingy to get into heaven and, because of the tricks he played on the devil, he was persona non grata in hell. The poor fellow was consigned to trudge the earth carrying alantern until Judgment Day.
Spooky, huh? Greg Schaler dosen't think so. In his hands, jack-o'-lanterns are works of art. Schaler, a 26-year-old Silver Spring sculptor and photographer, is rapidly becoming known as "the Pumpkin Man." When his high school friends were dreaming up Halloween mischief, Schaler began carving pumpkins. Not your basic grinning-through-crooked-teeth types, these are pumpkin faces with charm, and mustaches and beards and eyeballs that float in space. With ears, chains and cheeks. Faces that wink and smile knowingly and look like Tolkien characters.
"It's just a fun thing to do. I have a good time, experiment. I start carving and let go," he says. "My pumpkins are more caricature, on the carton level. And they have a life of their own," he says, eyes twinkling and a half-smile trying to find its way from behind his beard.
Schaler's pumpkin faces are made of hundreds of quarter-inch cuts. The cuts aren't connected, but the viewer's eyes connect the spaces. Hair is various V-shaped lines. Some cuts aredone at an angle allowing light from the candle inside to cast a softer glow. Some pumpkin faces are carved on both sides: The back image illuminates a wall and the front grimaces from a window.
Last year, two of Schaler's pumpkins cheerfuly greeted visitors to Renwick Gallery's Halloween Event. This year, the local artist will conduct five jack-o'-lantern-carving workshops for the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Pumpkin Day, a family pumpkin-carving event on October 27th.
Schaler, an Antioch College Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate, is bound to turn this Halloween tradition into an art event.
"The traditional technique is really limited. I wanted to work with kids, not for them to imitate what I do, but because they are really creative.
"Carving pumpkins relates to sculpture," he says. "it deals with light and shadow. There are positive and negative areas: It's not always what you carve out, but the space in between. You're working with line and lit areas and the spaces in between work together as a puzzle."
Now, all this may sound complicated, but Schaler insists it's easy.
"If you can draw a straight line, you can carve. Pumpkins are unlimited in terms of drawing," he says.
This master jack-o'-lantern-carver usually chooses a pumplin shaped like a face. He prefers tall, elongated ones to the shorter, round variety. The only tools are felt-tip markers and a kitchen paring-knife. Schaler recommends a long, narrow knife, one that is firm and not serrated. "A serrated one tends to chip the outer skin and makes an uneven cut," he admonishes.
Schaler even prepares his pumpkins differently:
"Most people prepare pumpkins by cleaning the inside out. I scrape down the inside of the pumpkin wall to get down to an inch. And, what I normally do is cut a little wedge of notch at the top of the lid to allow the heat to escape from the candle. This helps to keep your jack-o'-lantern from drying out and it lasts a little longer."
You can begin carving a pumpkin face at the eyes or nose. But, if you start with eyes, Schaler recommends beginning with the eyeball and working in a circular pattern from the eyebrow to the nose.
The only warning regards the first cut: "The first cut is the most important because it's the guide for the whole thing. Be careful."
After that, he says, the intricacies, patterns and kinetic feeling of a pumpkin face will just follow. Let your imagination go. And don't be afraid to make a mistake.
If you accidently knock a piece out, you can cut a toothpick in half, insert it into the broken piece and set it back into its proper place," he says.
Schaler usually waits until just before Halloween to gather his pumpkins. He finds that's when they are cheapest. This year, he and Corcoran staff members gleaned 200 just-right pumpkins from a Warrenton farm field.
The Cocoran's jack-o'-lantern-carving event is on a first-come, first- served basis. If you don't make it, here are some other suggestions for making a Great Pumpkin that will drive the evil spirits from your doorstep.
Most farm markets and groceries are ablaze with orange fields of pumpkins. Decorations, your pumpkin makeup, can be gourds, cornhusks, Indian corn and nuts.
Try gourds for pop-eyes, Jimmy Durante-type noses and lolling tongues: Cut just enough space for gourds to fit snugly. Leaves, dried grasses and cornhusks can serve as hair, beards or mustaches: Fasten grasses or leaves with small tacks. Rows of matched teeth can be walnuts, acorns or Indian corn. Coy eyelashes and smiling lips are quickly drown with felt tip markers. c
Plump your finished pumpkin atop a tomatoe stake wedged firmly in the ground. Drape the stake with a sheet and gather the sheet for a ruffle where it meets the pumpkin head. Left outside, these cheery pumpkin figures should last four to six days.
For a spookier effect, hang glowing jack-o'-lanterns from tree limbs without dry leaves. Set the pumpkin on a round of plywood held in place by a suspended wire running through the pumpkin and attached to the limb. At night, the flickering faces appear disembodied.
It's enough to scare off some fainthearted trick-or-treaters. And don't you be surprised to see a gossamer figure pass, led by the flicker of an old lantern in the night.