Pumpkin-carving passion keeps the trick-or-treaters lined up

Tim Skillern
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Mark Ratliff pumpkin carving

Pumpkin-carver extraordinaire Mark Ratliff upped his game when he tired of Halloween trick-or-treaters seeing his simple designs and lamenting: “I saw this pumpkin two blocks over.”

Those commonplace triangle-nosed jack-o'-lanterns with toothy grins? See ya later. Hello Captain America, Yoda and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Since the late '90s, Ratliff has carved increasingly complex and difficult designs that showcase cartoon characters, mythological creatures and rock stars. He has carved about 100 pumpkins — each taking about three to eight hours — and the effort has paid off.

“I love watching people’s faces light up when they are looking at them,” the 47-year-old Clarkston, Mich., resident says. “By having such a broad range of subject matter carved, I get adults oohing over ‘The Shining,’ while teens would ahhh over the Joker, only to have a little girl get excited to see Tinker Bell.”

See more of his work on Flickr.

Ratliff began carving more detailed and time-intensive designs by using stencil patterns sold by companies like Pumpkin Masters. He then discovered websites that featured patterns and message boards that nurtured carving communities where enthusiasts could share tips and tricks. He notes two in particular: stoneykins.com and carvingpumpkins.com. “The community of jack-o'-lantern carvers is very open in sharing tips and answering questions. And there are a LOT of tips and tricks.”

Among his favorite creations: Norse mythology’s Loki, a mummy who’s discovered he’s out of toilet paper, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” a Dark Queen and one entitled “Vampire’s Kiss.” He shared his work and insight with Yahoo News this week.

In 2005, he started creating his own patterns, and all of his designs since 2006 are original.

His most difficult was “The Ghost,” a 2008 feature of a winged and tattered skeleton-like figure who’s clutching a skull: “It was completely cut through with no shading to keep it from falling apart. One slip of the drill or the knife would have destroyed the entire pumpkin.”

And his “Silver Moon Fairy” from 2006, for instance, demanded more than eight hours just to adapt an original Jessica Galbreth painting to the point where he could carve the image. But it’s worth it: He says that design started a trend of carving fairies.

Ratliff explains that the darker orange is where a thicker portion of the pumpkin skin remains. The lighter the color, the more he’s carved away and thinned the pumpkin. “For the most part,” he says. “I design my pumpkins with three colors in mind (dark orange/black, light orange and yellow).”

His tool of choice is a Dremel with a 1/32-inch drill bit that allows him to work fine detail into his pumpkins. But he also employs the typical tools of the trade: X-Acto knives, speedballs and clay tools that can be found at most hobby shops. Ratliff has increasingly turned to foam pumpkins — rather than the real thing — so his work won’t sag and rot by early November.

“I love to push myself,” he says, “to see how elaborate a design I can come up with and still be able to carve it.”