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Hello, gourd-eous: The road to pumpkin stardom at the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular

101322_JOLS_Jellyfish_by Breya Jones
You don't have to be below sea level to see glowing ocean creatures at the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular.

The Jack O’Lantern Spectacular returned to Iroquois Park for the 10th year bringing hundreds of intricately carved pumpkins to the trail. 

The annual display helps fund the Parks Alliance of Louisville, which works to fund parks, particularly in underserved areas. 

But there’s a lot that has to happen before the gourds are ready for an audience.

The first step is sourcing and transportation. 

“We source from as many local farmers as possible. This year with the Eastern Kentucky flooding we definitely had farmers that definitely lost fields of pumpkins we had already arranged to buy from them,” the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular’s co-studio manager Alene Day said. 

Once the pumpkins arrive at the park, they sit under a tent waiting to be chosen by one of the many pumpkin artists.  And they’re not the only ones eyeing the fall fruits. Event staff have a strategy to keep pests away.

“We have some decoy pumpkins back there that were damaged already, so we put those hoping that the squirrels are gonna eat those and leave these good ones behind,” Day said

Timing is everything for a successful spectacle. The oldest pumpkins to arrive are used first, with the freshest ones being stored for use when the trail has to be replenished. 

Last year’s warm weather meant that up to 20 pumpkins needed replacement daily due to decay. This year’s milder temperatures have required fewer replacement pumpkins. 

Artists pick the pumpkin that best fits their design needs, but there are some standard features that make a pumpkin a good fit.

“We like it to be approximately 100 pounds, sometimes they’re bigger, sometimes they’re a little less, we love a nice smooth, flat frontside,” Day said.

However, if a pumpkin doesn’t have a smooth texture, artists can incorporate bumps into the design, adding dimension to their art. 

“There is an art to pumpkin whispering, in regards to finding the pumpkin that needs the image that you’ve chosen,” Day said.

Every artist is looking for something different.

“I’m looking for shape mostly,” pumpkin artist Samantha Ludwig said. “For example, this other one that I’m inking, I wanted it to be a little bit rounder, so that way as you went around the pumpkin you saw more of the image and more of it came to light.”

For the 10-year anniversary, this year’s theme is fan favorites. Community members were polled about some of their favorite designs from the past.

Sections of the trail include Day of the Dead, zombie zoo, fun house and fairy tale.

Once a pumpkin is brought into the studio, artists first sketch their drawing onto the gourd using a variety of tools.

“Everybody approaches it differently, some people use a ballpoint pen, some people use sharpies, some people actually use a paintbrush and alcohol ink,” Day said.

Day, who is a pumpkin artist herself, starts with a basic sketch and then incorporates more shadows and details as she works. 

The dozens of artists working with Jack O’Lantern Spectacular come in and design their pumpkins on their own time. The last step of the process is carving the pumpkin. Carving starts the rotting process, so that is held off as close to when the pumpkins hit the trail as possible.

Like the other processes, everyone approaches carving differently.

“I’ve become a fan of these linocut tools, which are for printmaking and use them to cut out linoleum blocks, that’s kinda like a different tool, you can get really cool lines from it,” said Amie Villager Harris. 

Villager Harris has been participating in Jack O’Lantern Spectacular for nine years, and she’s become known for carving some of the biggest pumpkins on the trail.

“I just want it to be extra spectacular, and I like having a really big canvas,” Villager Harris said. “Having the super big one is so ridiculous in the best way.”

Once a pumpkin is carved, it’s taken to a dark room. Staff insert lights to test how visitors will see it on the trail.  Then artists have a chance to finalize their design details. 

It’s then on the trail crew to finish scooping out some of the pumpkin guts to allow for fans to be run through the back of them to keep them fresh on the trail. 

The trail crew is also responsible for setting the “skits” for the pumpkins, which includes props, lighting and music elements to bring the space together. 

Kenny Darling is one of the trail builders. He said the crew works to fill the background and bring a skit to life.

“For example, we have hobbit houses out there, which we put scenery lights on to create a moonlight effect and then we have trees that are in the background that have colors that are fading in out just something so the entire trail looks full,” Darling said. 

All of these steps are needed for the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular to come together and be ready for guests. 

Day said the reactions from people seeing the pumpkins for the first time make it worth all the work. 

“I remember the first time I walked the trail, as soon as I walked I heard a kid say ‘This is the best thing ever’ and it felt so good to be a part of that kid’s excitement,” Day said. 

The Jack O’Lantern Spectacular run at Iroquois Park through October 31.

Breya Jones is the Breaking News Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.