What really terrifies you? Is it strange shadows dancing outside the window? Or big, black spiders in the bath? Maybe even Aldi port? If it’s the thought of a Sunday Telegraph writer wielding a large knife as well as various other instruments of torture to badly butcher an innocent pumpkin, then you may want to look away now, because it is not going to end well.
Each year, millions of Cucurbita pepo are sold ahead of All Hallows’ Eve, and the biggest and brightest end up at Sand In Your Eye headquarters, where they are then turned into things of monstrous beauty.
High up on a Pennine hill in West Yorkshire surrounded by green farmland is where Jamie Wardley and his team carve their magic. As well as producing intricate designs for big-name media clients – in recent years they did the White Walker for Game of Thrones – they also create pumpkin scenes for Hebden Bridge’s Pumpkin Festival, examples of which are busily being worked away at by members of the team. “It’s three weeks of madness,” says Jamie’s partner and fellow sculptor, Claire Jamieson. “It’s our most intense time of year; everyone wants a pumpkin in a tiny window, so on top of our three full-time staff we bring in freelancers for the period.”
For the rest of the year, Jamie, Claire and third team member Richard Spence are busy with sand and ice sculptures. Most recently, Jamie and Claire spent weeks in Chile creating a huge, 120-ton sand sculpture for the Santiago Art Festival. Right now though, the studio is littered with orange squashes, which are larger than your average examples, and are grown in Preston specifically for carving.
Jamie founded Sand In Your Eye some 15 years ago after a chance meeting on a beach in Norway with a British sand sculptor living out there. Although his background was in environmental protection, Jamie had always had a creative bent so after getting chatting, the sculptor suggested he gave it a go. It led to Jamie training as a sand sculptor and creating his own business, which for the past five years has had an annual substantial sideline in pumpkin carving.
“There aren’t that many professional pumpkin carvers around at the moment. They do some amazing festivals in the US. Ray Villafane’s in Arizona is incredible,” says Claire. “We wanted to be the first to do it here. Hebden Bridge is a really creative place, and everyone has embraced it.”
Sand In Your Eye is creating four scenes, as well as live carving on the day. The order of the day is mostly grotesque and horrible faces. On the subject of which, they’re not doing any Trumpkins. “We did loads last year, before he got in. It was funny then, but it isn’t so much now,” says Claire.
One of their large pumpkins can take up to eight hours to complete. One of the Queen, undertaken for a display in Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre, took two days. Little wonder then that their skills and services cost in the hundreds of pounds.
The company also offers workshops for people wanting to learn to sculpt ice and sand. A popular event at the moment is hen parties, where the finished sculpture is kept frozen and then unveiled at the wedding.
Today I’m getting stuck into some pumpkins, hoping to expand my repertoire beyond the same tired cut-out face I’ve been doing since I was eight years old. I’m looking for something more sophisticated, and I’m not alone. “On Facebook and Instagram, people are getting more and more adventurous at home. They do want to do more than the triangle eyes,” says Claire.
Picking the right pumpkin is the first important step. “Make sure it’s nice and fresh,” says Claire, as she spins around a prime example. “It’s not about finding the flattest part of the face, but the bit with the most character.”
Sand In Your Eye tends not to hollow out its pumpkins, and prefers to light them with LEDs rather than tea lights, so as not to detract from the integrity of the sculpture.
Front identified, I begin hacking off the front rind with a large wire-ended clay tool, typically used for clay modelling, although a potato peeler would work just as well. It’s tough work, but with our canvas primed, I’m ready to “block out” the face.
Using a smaller clay tool, I mark out the sides of the nose and the brow to make a triangle shape. “The nose is the highest part, and everything works back from that. If you cut out all the details now, you’d find that you needed to push it all back later,” counsels Claire.
To work out the depths for the contours of my pumpkin’s face, there’s a lot of feeling of our own faces to discover where the deepest parts are: around the eyes, nose and lips. “You usually work with a mirror in front of you to get expressions, or look through books of faces that we have for reference,” says Claire.
I dig deeper into the sides of my pumpkin’s emerging nose, taking care to notice when the flesh feels spongy and grainy. To create the eyes, two oval intersecting lines are drawn and the space in between is excavated using a soap sculpting tool to create a shadow line. A soft scourer helps to smooth out any lumps and bumps along the way, and my eye ball is completed with the help of a tiny melon-ball-like instrument that scoops out the pupils. For the mouth, the deepest crevice is drawn between the lips. Using another clay tool scraper, I dig out the chin below the bottom lip.
It’s coming on a trick and treat, but I can’t help but fear that I’ve been so focused on making a face, any face, that I’ve neglected to make it remotely scary and, well, my pumpkin just looks a little bit sad. If he’s to have a hope in hell of scaring my neighbours, then he needs more Grand Guignol and less garden gnome, stat.
“Because we’re working with all one colour, it’s important to carve out shadows with strong knife marks. It’s frightening at the time, but it’s what makes it stand out. It’s about brave cuts,” says Claire, as she hands me a paring knife.
I look into my pumpkin’s eyes and I swear that he is trembling. Regardless, I plunge on, gouging out ever more wet and flaccid flesh, settling for what I think could be a scar, perhaps the remnant of a lobotomy; he certainly looks wide-eyed and vacant enough.
“It’s all about creating a bit of character and drama. If you don’t put the details in to make it look 3D, it looks quite flat,” says Claire, egging me on to ever greater crimes against squash.
And then, I’m all alone. Claire has had to take a call and, unattended, I feverishly stab and gouge, venting my lack of artistic ability on his poor, pale visage.
“I think it’s good,” says Claire on her return. “I mean, considering you didn’t think you’d be able to make a face. And he’s definitely got an expression. A little bit of fear… Sad, yes, but with a little bit of fear.”
I know, instantly, what is frightening my pumpkin: me. I put down my knife.
This article was originally published in 2017.