Fairfielder carves artistic niche in pumpkin patch
Published 12:18 pm, Sunday, October 24, 2010
To hear Craig Smith tell it, pumpkin carving is sort of the artistic equivalent of downhill racing.
It moves quickly and provides a rush that the 60-year-old Fairfield native and accomplished artist doesn't get with other art forms, such as wood-carving. Take, for example, the 640-pound pumpkin he was carving on the front stoop of friend and fellow pumpkin carver Wyatt Whiteman last week. He was engraving the monstrous orange orb with the image of a "sort of like a devil-looking thing" -- a wild-eyed, befanged creature that appeared to be clawing its way out of the pumpkin.
Smith started the project on a Tuesday and was done by late Wednesday afternoon. All told, he expected to spend about nine hours on the project, which is a sprint compared to the 400 to 1,500 hours he might spent on a wood-carving. "Pumpkins are a lot easier than wood," Smith explained during a break from slicing up the massive pumpkin. "It's fast, and because it's so fast, it's exciting. It's exhilarating. It's creative." Unfortunately, the pumpkin -- which had been cut open Oct. 3 and was quickly rotting -- caved in not long after Smith finished sculpting his masterpiece into the face of the great vegetable. But Smith didn't mind. Such catastrophes are par for the course when one creates art from perishable items. In fact, he said, he had feeling that the pumpkin's shelf life was approaching its end.
"It was sagging the whole time I was carving it," he said.
Smith has been pursuing pumpkin-carving as an art form since 2007, adding it to his artistic media. In addition to pumpkins and wood, he also works in metal, and created the "Metal Monster," a 22-foot-long, 10-foot-high dinosaur that now sits at Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.
But pumpkins are different, Smith said. Not long after he got hooked on carving the iconic fall vegetable, he's dedicated himself to slicing up as many pumpkins as possible each Halloween season. Smith estimates that the behemoth at the Whiteman house is the 30th pumpkin he's carved this year. And, according to the tally he keeps in an index-sized notebook he carries with him, he's carved at least 1,800 pounds of pumpkins. He has a lot of carving to do between now and Halloween to top last year's record of 46 pumpkins (with a total weight of about 3,040 pounds), but he's confident he'll manage it.
The pumpkin he was working on at the Whiteman house was given to him by Fairfield resident David Garrell. A doctor of internal medicine by trade, Garrell has also been growing pumpkins for about 12 years. The 640-pounder isn't even the largest one he's grown, with his biggest pumpkin weighing in at 1,002 pound. Garrell said he's known Smith a few years, and admires his skill and commitment to carving.
"He's an excellent carver," Garrell said. "He has a real passion for it." Many of Smith's creations start with a rough sketch of what he'd like to do with the pumpkin. He often elaborates on the idea as he moves forward with the process. For instance, he originally planned to carve a skeleton onto Garrell's pumpkin, but eventually switched to the current demonic design. Much of his carving is done with a set of slender, wood-handled sculpting tools that can be purchased at most craft stores. Because pumpkin-carving requires him to use a fair amount of force, the tools are prone to breakage, so he keeps extras on hand.
Smith said he snatches any opportunity he can to practice his craft. Throughout the fall, he's been carving pumpkins everywhere he can, from Stew Leonard's in Norwalk to Silverman's Farm in Easton.
Two weeks ago, he was scheduled to compete in the pumpkin-carving competition at the Boothe Memorial Park Great Pumpkin Festival in Stratford. He was the festival's reigning champ, having won the carving competition last year by engraving a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables on his pumpkin.
Stephanie Philips, chairwoman of the Boothe Park Commission, said Smith has become something of a celebrity at the festival. Not only is he a gifted carver, Philips said, but his zeal for his work is infectious.
"He's got an enthusiasm and energy that makes the whole event itself just fun," she said. "I think he brings us a lot of attention."
Despite his love of his art, Smith admits that his constant carving can take a toll. "It's a little tiresome," he said. But the enjoyment he gets from his work helps him to power through, even when exhaustion beckons.
"You can't buy happiness like this," he said.