Pumpkin carving inspired by the artist Keith Haring. Courtesy of Maniac Pumpkins.
For centuries, artists have honed their craft by copying the challenging works of masters. But an even greater challenge, it seems, would be to painstakingly replicate Vincent van Gogh’s swirling trees or Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks in the flesh of a pumpkin—which is something the artists of Brooklyn’s Maniac Pumpkin Carvers have been known to do.
Founded by artists Marc Evan and Chris Soria, Maniac is now in its 10th year of creating intricately carved pumpkins for clients ranging from the New York Yankees and CNN to engaged couples. And their innovative approach to a centuries-old tradition extends far beyond famous artworks: Maniac’s artists have been known to etch the likenesses of pop cultural icons like David Bowie and Aretha Franklin in fine detail, to sculpt voluminous renderings of the ewoks from Star Wars, and to churn out classic jack-o-lanterns (though they’re likely more impressive than the ones you grew up with).
Now with a team of 12 artists (including Evan and Soria), Maniac not only carves pumpkins and makes autumnal arrangements for events (weddings and engagement parties are common), the artists also film timelapse videos and other social media content for brands, plan live demonstrations, give classes, and transform pumpkins into advertisements and gifts (you can even commission a portrait of your loved one in pumpkin form).
Their success draws not only from their artistic skills, but also their alignment with the ascent of social media, the experience economy, and companies investing in creative branding strategies. “It’s become a really fun way for a lot of brands to step outside their normal branding guidelines and have a little more fun with their identity,” Evan explained. At the same time, their familiar medium is soaked in playful, childhood nostalgia that people flock to—and want to post on Instagram. “We’ve had fun over the years helping make pumpkins cool for things like wedding proposals,” he added.
It all began for Evan and Soria back in high school on Long Island, New York (they’ve been friends and collaborators since age 12), when an art teacher gave the duo an annual Halloween assignment. “They would let us skip out of classes for a week or two and we would set up this really creepy and scary haunted house in the school,” Evan recalled. “We were doing these crazy costumes and interactive walkthrough experiences that terrified the children in the neighborhood.”
After college, they both studied art at Parsons School of Design. Their love for Halloween never wavered—they carved artful pumpkins for parties, bars, and restaurants. Their big break came when Wired caught wind of their pumpkins and published a feature, which put them on the radar of Martha Stewart, the Food Network, and the New York Yankees. “Our first really big client was the Yankees—they were the first to contact us and say, ‘We need 50 really intricate pumpkins,’” Evan explained.
Maniac became a full-on seasonal business in the years that followed, with a growing team to keep up with demand; the artists now ship pumpkins across the country and travel to events for carving demonstrations (this month, for instance, they have an artist giving live demos and building an installation at the Tennessee amusement park Dollywood).
While Maniac operates year-round, pumpkin season typically begins in late August and runs through Thanksgiving, Evan explained. They find a pop-up space for their headquarters each year—this time in a former warehouse in Bushwick—where the carving happens. “It’s kind of like the pumpkin version of Santa’s workshop,” Evan offered.
The vast majority of the work is based on commissions, which can involve months of preparation and back-and-forth with clients to revise and confirm the design. “Then once we get to drawing it on the pumpkin, that’s when the fun really starts,” Evan mused.
The artists are versatile, he explained, capable of carving in a variety of ways—from the intricate, multi-layered etched pieces that portray famous characters to the three-dimensional sculptural works that resemble more traditional carvings in wood or stone. They use a variety of art, kitchen, and hardware tools, such as small saws, serrated knives, linoleum cutters (typically used for printmaking), and clay loops (used for trimming in pottery). To ensure a vibrant glow, they wire the pumpkins internally like lamps. A single carved pumpkin can take anywhere from 2 to 12 hours to create, and as the company’s website indicates, their price tags range accordingly, from $150 to $800 a pop……………..
Each year, they look for opportunities to make their work even more mind-blowing. Some highlights over the years include this year’s Entertainment Weekly cover for the new Halloween movie, as well as commissions from Marvel and the Museum of Modern Art. The New York museum orders a pumpkin version of a work from its permanent collection each year—last year was Van Gogh’s Olive Trees (1889), while years past have included Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude II (1952), and Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). (This year’s MoMA pumpkin is still under wraps.)
These art-inspired works are part of what Evan refers to as the “Artist Series,” one of his favorite kinds of pumpkins to create. Over the years, they’ve rendered Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907), Keith Haring’s interlocking figures, and an M.C. Escher illusion, among others. “It’s such a great education lesson to try to copy a masterwork…and trying to translate that to pumpkins is a real challenge,” Evan said. “Each time, it’s a great way of us trying to push what we can do.”
Perhaps the most challenging (and exciting) factors of Maniac’s work is the ephemeral nature of pumpkins. They promise to deliver the work within 24 hours of carving—which means artists are often working late into the night—but once carved, they may only last from three days to a week, depending on the weather, Evan estimated. “We tell people: If you want to make sure that your pumpkin lasts for Halloween, you should have it carved a day or two before Halloween,” Evan said.
Evan and his colleagues take great pleasure in the limited shelf life of their work. “We meet so many people who have such a hard time with that idea when they see us putting all this work into the pumpkins, knowing that they’re not going to last long, but we fully embrace it. There’s something really beautiful about the fact that it’s a temporary thing,” he explained. “If we wanted it to last forever, we definitely wouldn’t put it in a pumpkin.”