When fall brings pumpkin season, Gus Smithhisler picks up his carving tools, eyes the possibilities, and gets busy.
Since 2002, Smithhisler, who lives just outside of Pataskala and is a member of Newark-based The Energy Cooperative, has turned pumpkins into art — and not just any pumpkins: Mammoth pumpkins that can grow from 300 to more than 2,000 pounds are perfect for this squashcarver’s canvas.
Smithhisler’s journey to “Gus the Squashcarver” fame began when his daughter was in kindergarten. He grew a huge pumpkin at her urging, then hauled their success story from Ohio to the pumpkin weigh-in at the Indiana State Fair. Over the two-day event, as Gus eyed the orangish bounty of soft-skin bigness, the muse hit. He recalls saying, “Someone should carve one.”
So, he did. In three hours, using an 8-inch hunting knife, Smithhisler carved the Indiana State Fair logo in one side and the Indiana Pumpkin Growers logo on the other. Two years later, he was commissioned to carve an Indianapolis Motor Speedway design in a pumpkin that topped 400 pounds.
An engineer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Smithhisler hasn’t had much in the way of formal art training (he had one drawing class as an undergrad at Ohio State University). As it turns out, though, engineering and pumpkin art are a perfect pairing.
Since his on-a-whim inauguration into a pumpkin carving profession, Smithhisler’s skills have taken him far: to the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas; Philadelphia’s Longwood Gardens; Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago; and the Country Living Fairs in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and Columbus. Franklin Park Conservatory, the Ohio State Fair, and various festivals are included on his Ohio resumé. In the mix of gargantuan greatness was an appearance on season six of the Food Network’s Halloween Wars and at last year’s Monster Pumpkin Festival in Pittsburgh.
Naturally, the Circleville Pumpkin Show, where monster pumpkins reign, is a given Ohio fit, but the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is another favorite gig. Over the three weekends of the annual Boo at the Zoo, Smithhisler carves six pumpkins, one each day, each one unique. Because of his close-to-the-entrance setup, guests can follow his progress from when they arrive to when they leave. “It takes me about four hours to carve a 500-pound pumpkin,” he says.
Mammoth pumpkins can sag like deflated balloons or be lumpy in their massiveness, while others are almost jack-o’-lantern perfect. All are fair game. “I carve whatever shows up.”
Also, unless there is a specific order, such as a logo, he carves where the pumpkin takes him. Like Michelangelo, who saw sculptures in the stone before he chipped away marble, Smithhisler usually lets a pumpkin’s shape and colors reveal what it wants to be. “Because some pumpkins are gross and ugly or a beautiful orange, that affects the design,” he says.
Working off guidelines made to scale to get proportions right, Smithhisler uses a soft litho crayon to mark what he envisions on the pumpkin’s surface. The soft skin is a major feature, as well as interesting shapes and anomalies within the individual squash. The stemless handle of a pumpkin might become a rooster’s eye; green streaks emerge as a lion’s mane.
With a mix of clay-carving tools and a filet knife, Smithhisler uses a subtractive technique, taking away pieces and slivers of pumpkin skin and flesh. “I create shadows and dimension with deep cuts,” he says. The effect of his work is a performance-art-meets-static-art venture. No matter the venue, pumpkin carving is a crowd-pleaser. For Gus, interacting with the audience and giving people a turn at carving is the best part of the job.
Since rendering the Indiana State Fair logo, his repertoire has included tributes to Jack Hanna, the Battle of Iwo Jima, and Smokey Bear. Nature and animals have been favored subjects since childhood, when Gus first started sketching. “The animals are fun to carve,” Smithhisler says, counting a gorilla and an eagle as his favorites. Dragons are another specialty.