As power drills buzzed in the background, pulverized rind and pulp flew through the air and frantic contestants desperately searched for lost tools. Palo Alto resident Leigh Henderson, a finalist on season three of "Outrageous Pumpkins," a pumpkin carving competition show on the Food Network, calmly carried on with her work, transforming a massively lopsided pumpkin into a fiendish ghost story. "Not super-fast, (but) super-precise," she said, wielding her favorite sculpting tool, an X-acto knife.
Competing against six other contestants for the title of "Outrageous Pumpkin Champion," Henderson attributed her flair for storytelling and structure or building things that defy gravity to her professional training as a theater set designer.
"I think about the whole scene," Henderson said. "What's the scene I'm trying to set? Not just what I want it to look like. It's the same way in theater. When you're designing a set, you're thinking not only about what you want it to look like but what story does this set allow me to tell?"
Bringing monstrous scenes to life, Henderson elicited impressed reactions from the show's judges with her carves; a demonic-inspired haunted house, a cannibal zombie and, perhaps most terrifyingly of all, a colossal spider feasting on a person's bloodied eyeball. "Personally, I love spiders," Henderson said. "But even I don't like that little tickling feeling when you wake up and say, 'Oh my God, there's something on my face!'"
"Is that a spider ripping out an eyeball?" Sunny Anderson, the show's host, asked incredulously. "Seriously scary."
Henderson's interest in pumpkin carving began more than 20 years ago when she walked into a Michaels arts and crafts supply store and saw an advertisement for Pumpkin Masters' national pumpkin carving contest. It took Henderson 11 years of submitting entries before she eventually won the grand prize. Since then, Henderson has regularly appeared on Food Network competitions, such as "Halloween Wars," "Sugar Dome" and "Big Time Bake," showcasing her skills as a cake artist. "I love art forms where you make something and then it's gone, like cake, pumpkin or theater, Henderson said.
"Halloween Wars" inspired Henderson to take pumpkin carving to a higher level. She entered the show as a cake artist and was quickly blown away by the pumpkin carvers who were part of the teams. "That was really the first time I saw people do sculpted carving," Henderson said. "And I wanted to do that too."
Before then, Henderson had been carving jack-o'-lanterns, a more traditional form of carving that hollows out pumpkins and uses interior lighting to create a two-dimensional picture effect. Pumpkin sculpting is different. It treats the pumpkin more like wood or clay, creating a 3D sculpture out of it.
But pumpkins have a limited life span. Unlike wood or clay, they turn to mush after a few days. Henderson described the temporality of pumpkin carving as a part of its appeal, something that she likened to theater, which also exists in a contextualized moment. After a show ends, the set is torn down; it no longer has meaning without the artists and audience, Henderson said.
Similarly, a carved pumpkin is only meaningful in a certain context, like a Halloween party or the night of trick-or-treating. "Then it rots, and it becomes nothing, which is good because you get to carve another pumpkin," Henderson said. "Otherwise, you'd just be left with a whole bunch of pumpkins out of context that you don't need," she added.
The experience is still meaningful even when it's over. "Halloween Wars" pushed Henderson to rethink the ways that she could use pumpkins as an artistic canvas while "Outrageous Pumpkins" introduced her to a much larger scale of pumpkin sculpting. The Palo Altan's talent carried her through the season three finale, which aired on Sunday. While she fell short of winning the title, Henderson found rewards through the friendships she formed with her fellow competitors, who shared tips and tools.
"It's fun, it's crazy. You meet fantastic people," she said. "And even though we were competing against each other, we were also helpful to each other."
Henderson had some practical tips for home pumpkin carvers too. Pay attention to the color of a pumpkin when picking it out, she said. Lighter-colored pumpkins are softer and easier to carve. Darker-colored pumpkins are harder to cut but take more detail better. Small pumpkin saws, available at craft and grocery stores, are great to use although a paring knife works well too. And, for funky facial features, Henderson suggested using vegetables, like radishes, carrots and pieces of yam, which can be added to pumpkins with toothpicks or even super glue.
"Just go for it and have fun," Henderson said. "The worst thing you can do is not carve a pumpkin."