Q&A: The Life and Times of a Pro Pumpkin Carver

When: Oct. 27-31 & Nov. 4-6
Where:Croton-on-Hudson, NY (Map)

When Mike Natiello earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University, he never imagined that his “art” would be carving intricate designs into orange gourds. Yet 15 years later, Natiello has mastered the art of the jack o’ lantern.

It all started in 2005, when Natiello was approached by Historic Hudson Valley to help create a new Halloween event that would feature thousands of hand-carved jack o’ lanterns. The job boosted pumpkin carving from a fond childhood memory to a full-time job. Today, Natiello serves as creative director and “head carver” of the event, now known as the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze.

MetroFocus spoke to Natiello about what it’s like to make a life out of transforming a pumpkin’s blank canvas into an elaborate work of orange art.

Mike Natiello carves hundreds of pumpkins for the Hudson Valley's Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze. Pictured above are some of his creations, including the celtic knots, sunflower and snake. Flickr/pixel catcher. Photo of Michael Natiello, courtesy of Anthony Pellegrino.

Q: How does one earn the title “professional pumpkin carver?”

A: Once your skin starts turning orange, you know you’re on your way. That, and being recruited by People Magazine to carve a Justin Bieber pumpkin, which just happened. So I guess I’ve arrived. I carve probably around 500 pumpkins a year.

Q: I’m far from a carving pro…Got any good tips for me?

A: The most important part is choosing the right pumpkin. Look for one that has no bruises, is evenly colored, and isn’t moldy or rotten. Tap on the pumpkin gently to hear a firm, hollow sound. The lighter the pumpkin’s skin, the softer the pumpkin will be, thus the easier to carve. Choose a pumpkin with a smooth, flat face, with shallow ridges and few of them.

Also, never, ever carry your pumpkin by the stem. The pumpkins don’t like it, and some of them bite.

A giant T-Rex, made from hundreds of hand carved pumpkins. The dino is just one of several in an installation that pays homage to the Great Paleozoic Museum. Photo by Bryan Haeffele.

Q: How can I make my carved pumpkin last longer?

A: You can make a jack o’ lantern last longer by coating all the cut areas with petroleum jelly. Keep the pumpkin wrapped in plastic in a cool location when not in use. To prevent mold growth, soak in a solution of water with 10 percent bleach. To deter animals from snacking, spray the pumpkins with garlic spray or hot pepper.

Q: What can I expect to see at the Blaze this year?

A: Guests can expect to see more than 4,000 hand-carved, illuminated jack o ’ lanterns — everything from simple jacks to extremely elaborate carving installations. Some of this years highlights are the intricate Celtic knot carvings, Pumpkinhenge and a huge multi-jack life-size dinosaur skeleton. There’s really nothing else like it.

Q: Do you start with a sketch or just dig in?

A: It depends on the carving. For something really elaborate like a Celtic knot, I find it best to sketch the idea on the pumpkin surface first. For a multi-pumpkin creation like one of our snakes or a pirate, you absolutely have to sketch it out on paper, then figure out how to divide it among a number of pumpkins.

Q: What’s the best part about carving pumpkins? The worst?

A: The best part is every carving is a singular creation, even if it’s part of a larger whole. You might have a fixed idea about what it will become, but you don’t really know until the pumpkin starts talking to you… You can hear them if you listen close enough.

The worst thing is carpel tunnel syndrome.

Natiello draws much of his inspiration from Van Cordlandt Manor, where the Blaze occurs. The mansion was built in 1750 following the revolutionary war. Flickr/lulubrooks

Edvard Munch, "The Scream." Natiello said the famed painting depicts his mood after Halloween. Flickr/oddsock.

Q: As an artist-turned-carver, where do you get your inspiration?

A: For the Blaze, I’m inspired by the natural beauty of the Van Cortlandt Manor landscape, where the event takes place, and the site’s rich Revolutionary War-era history. I try to create installations that are connected in some way to the site, even if it’s rather ancient history, like in the case of the dinosaurs.

Q: Finish this sentence “If I were a Jack-o-lantern, I would look like ______.”

A: “Scream” by Edvard Munch… It’s how I feel after  carving hundreds of pumpkins in a short period of time.

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