published Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Wood-carvers set new standard in jack-o-lantern art

Tony Harris creates his pumpkin faces by first skinning the pumpkin's shell in the area to be carved.
Tony Harris creates his pumpkin faces by first skinning the pumpkin's shell in the area to be carved.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Pumpkin-Carving Contest

It's not too late to enter the Museum Center at Five Points' annual pumpkin-carving contest.

Contestants should deliver their carved pumpkins to the museum, 200 E. Inman St., in Cleveland, Tenn., either today from 2 to 4 p.m. or Monday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Entries will be divided into three categories: youth ages 5-16, adults and professional/artist. Prizes will be awarded for first, second and third places at 4 p.m. Monday.

The pumpkins will remain on display at the museum until 8 p.m. Monday. For more information, call 423-339-5745.

Tony Harris walked into the Museum Center at Five Points' pumpkin-carving contest last Halloween an unknown. He left as champion.

"He was a surprise entry," said Lisa Simpson Lutts, director of the Cleveland, Tenn., museum.

"His carving was so lifelike, so filled with detail and humor that we were blown away by it. It was a miniature sculpture," she said.

Harris will return Monday to defend his title in the sixth annual pumpkin-carving competition sponsored by the museum. After seeing Harris' work, Lutts said the museum staff and sponsor Guthrie Pumpkin Farm decided to divide entries into categories by age/skill levels this year so that would-be contestants wouldn't be intimidated by the returning champion.

For Harris, a 49-year-old Cleveland mechanic, pumpkin-carving is a natural extension of his woodcarving hobby. He is among a growing number of seasonal craftsmen turning big orange gourds into original artwork.

Extreme pumpkin carving is a growing fad promoted, in large part, through Food Network competitions and other reality TV shows.

Harris is a wizard with wood, having honed his skill over 25 years of carving. He has placed in the top three several times at the National Caricature Carving Competition, bringing home a first-place award in 2010.

"I carved my first pumpkin in 1996," Harris said. "That was the first year Dollywood started having a pumpkin-carving competition for people to watch woodcarvers show their talent in a timed event."

Since then, he said, he has placed in the top three at several of Dollywood's annual competitions.

His reputation has grown so that two of his pumpkins were featured as examples in a how-to book, "Extreme Pumpkin Carving: 20 Amazing Designs from Frightful to Fabulous."

"I call them goofy faces," he said of his whimsical expressions, "something I think kids will like."

Harris' designs are highly detailed, a far cry from snaggle-toothed pumpkins with triangle eyes. He works freehand, never relying on a pattern, using only V-shaped tools, U-shaped gouges and a carving knife for fine detailing.

He first skins the pumpkin's shell in the area to be carved. Next, he draws base lines to note where eyes and nose will be placed. He builds a mound where the nose will be, then begins to rough in the eye sockets.

"Once that is established, I draw the mouth area and type of expression I want it to have, whether it will be a tongue sticking out, a big toothy smile or a cute little grin. After all the areas are roughed in, I start detailing the face, trying to work all over, not just one area," he explained.

It's exacting work because Harris has to take care not to pierce the shell. When completed, he'll rub down the face with his hands, which smoothes rough areas for a finished surface.

"The most difficult part is not going too deep with the cuts while trying to show depth. It is very tedious for me as I pride myself on having very detailed carving. I have a lot of clean lines, and that is very hard to get sometimes," Harris said. "Each one is unique; no two are ever alike."

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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