Pumpkin carvers elevate the art of the jack-o’-lantern

Lauren Wanko, Correspondent | October 30, 2018 | Around NJ

They just screams Halloween — jack-o’-lanterns.

“I just think it’s so ingrained in American culture. It’s a family time, some of them are scary, some of them are funny,” said Carol Lipson, Hopewell Valley Arts Council board of trustees president.

It’s hard to imagine the spooky holiday without the ghoulish creations. Every year about 40 artists attend the Hopewell Valley Arts Council’s Amazing Pumpkin Carve.

Though the tradition didn’t start in this country, it began centuries ago with an Irish folklore about a man called Stingy Jack, says Brookdale Community College associate history professor Dr. George Reklaitis. To make a long story short, Stingy Jack tricked the devil a couple times and then struck a deal with the devil not to claim his soul.

“Eventually Jack died. He went to heaven, but God took one look and said, ‘No, no we don’t want your type in the Pearly Gates.’ So Jack goes to hell and tries to get into hell, but the devil says, ‘Listen a deal’s a deal, you’re not allowed in.’ ‘Well, where am I supposed to go,’ says Jack. The devil says, ‘Not my problem, but here, have this glowing ember of coal to help light your way as you look for your own hell,’ so to speak,” Reklaitis explained.

So Jack carved out a turnip, placed his burning coal inside and used that as a lantern. And as the story goes, he’s been roaming ever since. Centuries ago, when folks spotted flashes of light, many believed it was Stingy Jack and his lantern, which is why people began carving their own jack-o’-lanterns out of potatoes, beets or turnips. It’s what was available in places like Ireland, Scotland and England. They hoped to scare Stingy Jack and other evil spirits away from their homes.

So how did the tradition make its way to America? When the immigrants arrived here, they discovered something new — the pumpkin.

“So these folks now found a perfect jack-o’-lantern — a pumpkin that is much softer, much easier to carve. It’s much bigger so you can put an even larger flame or candle in it,” said Reklaitis.

The Hopewell Valley Arts Council provides the pumpkins. They’re donated by a local resident and purchased from a farm in Pennsylvania. On average they weigh about 160 pounds. The Council pays the artists — all they have to do is bring their creativity and tools.

“It’s really a lot of fun, because some of them are wood carvers, some of them are painters,” said Lipson.

One carver is a restaurant owner and sushi chef.

“I grabbed whatever I had in the restaurant and just put it together,” said pumpkin carver Charlie Yeh.

Two women created two sisters, with eyelashes and all.

“It kind of just worked itself out with its own personality,” said Jill Thomas.

Art teacher Matt Derby is proud to show his daughter his vampire bat.

“It’s just the beauty of creativity,” said Derby. “That you can take any object and you can make it fun and creative just with a little imagination.”

Maybe these pumpkins will inspire your next creation — if not this year, there’s always next Halloween.