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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Jack-o'-lantern carving brings out the artist in us all

October 26. 2018 9:05PM
New Hampshire Institute of Art student Clive Mongeau of Sterling, Mass., carves into a pumpkin this week in an activity room at the Manchester college. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

Like most people, I like Halloween for the scary movies, the parties and — of course — the free candy.

It is also special because, of all the holidays, it is the one that most indulges our creative impulses. On Oct. 31, if no other date, we put aside our reverence to all things STEM. We gather up household materials (and a few store-bought items) to make unique costumes. Decorations get placed at our front doors.

And what is likely the most creative of any holiday endeavor, we take knives to pumpkins as if we were serial killers.

Seeking inspiration, I visited New Hampshire Institute of Art. Not for serial killers but for artists who could render tips on juicing up jack-o’-lanterns.

The Art Institute’s illustration club met Tuesday, and organizers provided a dozen or so sugar pumpkins as well as carving-tool kits to future artists.

A portable stereo broadcast songs such as “Thriller” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” and about a dozen artists started cutting into the gourds and ripping out seeds and gooey guts.

“If you’re the kind of person who likes to make an absolute mess, pumpkins are brilliant,” said Samantha Cohen, who is from Marlow.

They had no consensus for how to go forward. Freestyle or pattern: The great pumpkin debate.

Lucas Grondin of Dover wanted to know where his blade was going. He took a felt-tipped marker to his pumpkin and drew the Batman symbol. He’s a Batman fanatic, he said, as he unbuttoned his top couple of shirt buttons to show off a Batman chest tattoo.

A Joker-Batman jack-o’-lantern, carved by New Hampshire Institute of Art student Lucas Grondin. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

OK, I thought, an art student and he chooses a highly recognizable symbol that’s pretty simple. But in less than an hour, he had added a couple of eyes, three teeth and fashioned the bat symbol into the mouth of a Joker that would make Heath Ledger proud.

His inspiration? “They,” he pointed to his fellow carvers, “made me feel bad about doing Batman again.”

On the other end of the debate was Cohen. No stencil. No marker. Just freehand carving.

“I’m going to wing it. Stick a knife in and see where it goes,” she said. And it went. A hunched figure with a bent nose. A cauldron. A cut or two above the cauldron to give a sparkle to whatever is cooking.

She draws her inspiration, she said, from the Pumpkin Festival that used to overrun Keene, which is close to her family home of Marlow.

Of course, the jack-o’-lantern glow is important. Too much of an opening, and the pumpkin becomes a mere lantern. Too little, and a flame could suffocate.

Clive Mongeau called up her muse, Spiderman, on a laptop and quickly carved out spider eyes. She then drew a thin grid across the face and started sawing the thinnest of web-like lines, avoiding corners to keep the pumpkin intact, of course.

She expects the candlelight will squeeze out of the lines in a fashion that would tingle true spider senses. Like Cohen and Grondin, her inspiration came once she started on her pumpkin.

“I’ll figure it out when I get there,” she said while digging out pumpkin guts.

And that is the lesson.

Go with something you love.

Stay flexible.

Carve with zest.

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturday in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

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