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Susan Kang Sunderland

The Pumpking Comes To Honolulu

He’s allergic to pumpkins, but that hasn’t stopped Ray Villafane from becoming a renowned carver of ghoulish gourds for Halloween

Sound the trumpets. Make way for royalty. Here comes the Pumpking.

When it comes to the superstar of pumpkin carvers, Ray Villafane rules. He is hailed as a Picasso with pumpkins and a van Gogh with gourds.

Villafane, a Michigan art teacher-turned-master sculptor, creates ghoulish goblins and zombies that will scare the dickens out of you. Watching Villafane transform an ordinary pumpkin into one of his horrific characters is a haunting reverie. Fascination turns to awe.

Hawaii’s annual Pumpkin Carving Festival presents Villafane in his Island debut. Meet him at the festival’s corporate competition and executive carve-down Wednesday, Oct. 23, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Tamarind Park at Bishop Square. Family Day takes place Saturday, Oct. 26, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Windward Mall. Both events are open to the public.

Ten teams including Matson Navigation, Hawaiian Host, Hawaiian Airlines and Meadow Gold Dairies, among others, will vie for corporate bragging rights. Thirteen business executives, including Christopher Benjamin, president of Alexander & Baldwin Inc., will do their best to cut things up in individual carving contests.

Judges at the Oct. 23 carve-down are Tom Moffatt, Ron Nagasawa, John Berger, Alan Wong, Donna Mercado Kim, David Uchiyama, Steven Petranik and Chuck Furuya – otherwise known as Tricks and Treats.

Festival founder-organizer Billie Gabriel expects 2,500 carvers to participate in Family Day, which benefits Keiki O Ka Aina Family Learning Centers and USO Hawaii.

“One of the purposes for this community event is to establish a new holiday tradition for families,” says Gabriel. “Carving pumpkins is not something many Hawaii families get to do together with other families, and this is an opportunity for fellowship in a fun and festive atmosphere.”

Safeway, a major sponsor along with Matson Navigation, is donating 1,100 pumpkins for the event.

Family packages at $35 and $65 include pumpkin(s), tools, gloves, stencil and shared work table. Participants can choose one of three shifts at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

“Carvers provide the creativity, imagination, techniques and cordial competitive spirit,” says Leighton Tseu, festival president and local philanthropist. “We’ve had some amazing results in the past.”

This year, a KULA Youth Challenge has been added to the festivities at Windward Mall. High school students will compete in teams to create pumpkin designs that depict an anti-bullying message.

But all eyes likely will be fixed on master carver Villafane as he demonstrates his ghoulish gourds.

Villafane began “dabbling” in pumpkin sculpting when he was a teacher in hometown Bellaire, Mich. Eventually he evolved his art as an animation sculptor for DC and Marvel comics.

His vocation reached a pinnacle when he won the 2008 and 2010 grand prize titles of the Food Network Challenge show, Outrageous Pumpkins. He has since traveled the world to demonstrate his amazing creations.

“The most intricate pumpkin model that I have designed is the Zipperhead model (pictured), which took the best part of a day. Otherwise, the models take a few minutes to a couple of hours,” he says.

Reviewers call Villafane’s extreme carving “insanely freaky” and “extra wicked.”

He is “out of his gourd,” says one critic. “He might be a genius,” says another.

But his gift could also be a curse, according to Villafane, who admits, “I am rarely satisfied with what I do. Plus, I’m allergic to pumpkin!”

Villafane’s 3-D twisted faces will thrill Halloween trickers and gothic horror fans alike. If pumpkin carving were an Olympic sport, Villafane would undoubtedly be the gold medalist.

What are his tips for amateur carvers?

“Start off simple if you’re a beginner,” he advises. “Do not attempt a really intricate carving, as it might become frustrating and discouraging. Work your way toward elaborate designs. This allows you to learn various techniques along the way.”

He coaxes, “Never approach it like, ‘Ahhh … it’s just a pumpkin.’ Pour your heart and soul into it, and cross your fingers that it comes out well. Failure does happen, even with mine.”

Finally, Villafane asserts, “The most important thing is to experiment and to have fun. And if it turns out bad, you can always eat it.”

For information and tickets to the Pumpkin CarvingFestival, visit pumpkincarvingfestival.org.

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