Hollywood artist Jon Neill’s pumpkin carvings are so scary they might just give you nightmares this Halloween. The big, wrinkly faces and mouths full of crooked teeth are so life-like and rich in detail that it’s hard to believe they’re actually made of plain old pumpkins.
Neill, originally from Kansas City, has been carving pumpkins ever since he was a boy. His family used to grow them, and over the years, his traditional jack-o-lanterns morphed into creepy works of art. But his skills didn’t receive recognition until a few years ago, when the San Fernando Valley resident turned pro. He auditioned for the TV show Halloween Wars as a pumpkin artist, for which he made a few time-lapse videos of himself at work. When one of those videos was put up on YouTube, it started to receive thousands of hits, and he soon became known as one of the world’s pumpkin carving artists.
Halloween season starts early for Neill. In August, he starts making trips to Ventura County to pick the perfect pumpkins to suit his projects. “I look for pumpkins with character,” he explained. “If I can see a hint of an expression or an attitude in a pumpkin, I look for that to get one to carve. I also look for something that has more of a presence to it, something that I feel people would want to see me carve.”
Once the Halloween season really starts, Neill is a busy man with a packed schedule. He appears at Halloween events all over the country to carve in front of crowds. He also takes on jobs at private parties in the Los Angeles area, where he enthralls the audience as he works. And in his free time, he heads back to the pumpkin patches to replenish his stock.
Neill is one of the few artists who have successfully converted their skill into a performance. People seem to love watching him work, and don’t mind sitting around for hours while waiting for the final sculpture to emerge. “The thing that is best about pumpkin carving is that everyone has carved a pumpkin,” he said. “We all share this common thread. It basically brings us together.”
Still, there’s a difference between regular carving and the art-form practiced by Neill. For starters, the sheer athletic ability required to carve massive 850-pound gourds in just mind-blowing. He estimates that the largest one he’s ever carved was a 1,700-pound monster. His carving sessions are a spectacle – they’re feats of strength and endurance that never fail to amaze.
You’d wish that pumpkin sculptures of this kind would last forever, but, sadly, it is an ephemeral art. Neill does treat his pumpkins with anti-bacterial spray and avoids cutting out the seeds, but eventually, they do rot. “I don’t know if I really like the idea that it’s gone forever after that,” he admitted. But more than the finished product, he values the relationship he forges with his medium. “I think that the thing I like the most is more the relationship that you’re having with that pumpkin at the time that you’re creating it,” he said. “If there are people watching it, all of a sudden they have a relationship with it.”
Pumpkin carving is seasonal, and the rest of the year, Neill actually works as a film and television artist. He makes props, comes up with concept designs, and draws a lot of fictional police sketches. He has spent 20 years in the business, and he is now a member of the Laguna College of Art and Design. He has worked with top artists like Michael Jackson, and on movies like Jurassic Park.
If you’re interested in owning an original Jon Neill Halloween pumpkin ornament, you could head over to hisonline store. Or, you could catch him at one of his live performances if you happen to be in California this Halloween.
Photos: Jon Neill