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Great gourds! Take your pumpkin carving to new level

Every October, people can’t resist the pull of the pumpkin. Carvers go to work on their hand-picked gourds, eager to transform them into something spectacularly scary, or just plain spectacular.

Of course, in this life, there are pumpkin carvers and there are pumpkin carvers. And if pumpkin-carving were to become an Olympic event, Ray Villafane would be a contender for a gold medal.

The sculptor’s Halloween pumpkins are so hauntingly lifelike that they often inspire stunned silence and awe. He’s trounced competing carvers on TV on “Food Network Challenge: Outrageous Pumpkins,” and he’s attained a healthy fan base online.

Not bad for a guy who’s allergic to pumpkin. (His skin and eyes get really itchy after a couple of days of carving.) It’s also pretty impressive considering that Villafane’s first pumpkin-carving attempt in his 20s was a disaster.

“Yeah, it was horrible. It didn’t work out at all,” recalled Villafane, 42. “I didn’t have the right tools. I used a spoon or something, you know? Really, really bad.”

From schoolteacher to sculptor
But Villafane didn’t give up. An experienced art teacher, he figured there must be a way to approach a pumpkin like a block of clay.

One day a student in the small rural school district where Villafane taught brought a big, homegrown pumpkin to class. He asked Villafane to take a stab at carving it.

“I gave it another try and it came out all right,” Villafane said. “The kids in the classroom all loved it and they started bringing in pumpkins for me. It got to the point where I would come into the school to teach, and I would have pumpkins lined up in front of my door with kids asking me, ‘Can you carve this for me?’ ‘Can you do this?’ ”

This went on for several years, giving Villafane the chance to practice carving plenty of pumpkins without having to pay for any of them. And at a certain point in his pumpkin-fueled journey, Villafane had an epiphany: He loved sculpting.

“I got turned on to sculpting as a different career choice,” Villafane said. “And it was good timing, too. My wife and I had five kids, and teaching just wasn’t cutting it financially.”

He began dabbling in wax and he started sculpting a wax figure of Wolverine from the movie “X-Men.”

“I posted my in-progress pictures online and I got an e-mail from Marvel Comics wanting me to do it,” Villafane said. “My first practice piece was my first job. I’ve never stopped since. I never even had to do a portfolio.”

Villafane stopped teaching about seven years ago, and he’s been working from home and sculpting for Marvel, DC Comics, Warner Bros. and other outlets ever since. He’s created all sorts of collectible figurines from “Batman,” “Superman” and other beloved comic-book series, as well as collectibles from movies such as “Terminator,” “Ghost Rider” and “X-Men” and from the role-playing game World of Warcraft.

Three years ago Villafane also entered the sand-sculpting scene, and he’s been making a name for himself there as well. He placed in a World Championship of Sand Sculpting competition in Federal Way, Wash., and he’s done big sand-sculpting jobs in Italy and Moscow.

“One of the things that impresses me most about Ray is his ability to transcend mediums,” said Villafane’s colleague Andy Bergholtz, chief sculptor for Sideshow Collectibles in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “He is not limited by any material. The man could sculpt the statue of David out of a stick of butter.”

So you want to be a pumpkin carver?
Through all the changes in his career, Villafane hasn’t forgotten his love of pumpkins. Even though he doesn’t have as much time these days to devote to pumpkin-carving, he enjoys helping other carvers perfect their craft. He posted a pumpkin-carving tutorial on his website, and in it he shares a couple of key ground rules:

—When strolling through a pumpkin patch, stay on high alert for thick pumpkins. Of course, you can’t actually tell how thick a pumpkin is until you cut into it, but as a general rule, thick pumpkins are heavy pumpkins. “Pick up three pumpkins of the same size,” Villafane advised. “If one feels much heavier than the others, it’s got a thick wall.”

—Go for an oblong shape rather than a perfectly round shape. Villafane finds that a taller, oblong shape is best for carving faces. “The best is oblong and, if you can imagine, compressed,” he said. “Find a pumpkin that’s been lying on its side so it looks compressed, and so it has a ridge running from top to bottom. You sculpt the face along the ridge.”

—Use the right tools. In his tutorial, Villafane recommends carving with: a large clay ribbon loop; a medium clay ribbon loop; a mini clay ribbon loop; an X-ACTO knife, and a paring knife. (No spoons!)

A common question Villafane fields: Does he really make such intricate creations out of just one pumpkin? Surely he must be putting at least two different pumpkins together, right?

The answer: Nope. Villafane makes a point of carving just one solid pumpkin. Rarely he’ll use separate pumpkin meat to carve a few extra flourishes — say, the motorized snakes on Medusa’s head, or the tiny spikes on the Predator’s face, or the feather atop a Native American’s head — but other than that, you’re seeing just one pumpkin when you examine Villafane’s carvings.

“Ray is a terrific problem solver and I think it shows in his work,” Bergholtz said. “He has always been one of the rare few that continues to push his limits and raise the bar for all of us.”

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