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The fine art of pumpkin carving

The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular celebrates the Halloween tradition

TJ Wright of Oxford gets into his pumpkin carving.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

TJ Wright of Oxford gets into his pumpkin carving.

PROVIDENCE — If your family is like many, you’ve got a pumpkin sitting on the front stoop. On or just before Halloween, you’ll hollow it out, give it a spooky/silly face, stick a candle inside, and hope it stays lit until the last trick-or-treater goes home.

By the next morning, squirrel food.

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Maybe you’ve bought a pumpkin-carving kit containing stenciled designs and carving tools, vowing to do better than last year’s model, with its triangular eyes and gap-toothed mouth more in need of an orthodontist than an exorcist.

But if you’ve seen the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo, you’re likely of two minds. Either you’re going to get way more creative this year. Or you’ve laid down your carving tools and surrendered, knowing you’ll never turn a plain old holiday gourd into a glowing work of art.

“Basically, what we put on here is an illuminated art show set to music,” explains John Reckner, the impresario behind the Providence show, one of New England’s largest displays of fine-art pumpkin carving.

A retired postal carrier from Oxford, Mass., Reckner and his Passion for Pumpkins team spend much of the year planning and executing a display that attracted more than 110,000 visitors last year. The team also produces a similar gourd-apalooza in Louisville, Ky. This year’s show theme, Pumpkinville USA, salutes America’s 50 states and includes nearly 5,000 brightly lit pumpkins, 132 of which are intricately carved renderings of people, places, and things.

There are historical figures (Sitting Bull, Rosa Parks, Mark Twain) and pop culture icons (David Letterman, Audrey Hepburn, the Duck Dynasty guys); musicians (Louis Armstrong, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington) and world figures (Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jack and Bobby Kennedy); wildlife (gila monster, lobster, beaver) and tourist destinations (Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park). There’s kitsch, too (Narragansett Beer, “The Amityville Horror”).

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An “in memoriam” section pays tribute to, among others, Jean Stapleton, James Gandolfini, Margaret Thatcher, and victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and Sandy Hook school shootings. It may be an unorthodox context in which to honor the dearly departed, yet it works surprisingly well. And the pumpkin portraits themselves are remarkably detailed.

“We’re not a bit scary and don’t try to be,” says Reckner, touring the exhibit an hour before its 6 p.m. opening. (The show, which runs through Nov. 3, is best viewed in complete darkness).

“We’re trying to leave everybody in a good frame of mind,” Reckner adds.

Kimberly Reckner, a pumpkin artist and show manager, calls her father “almost an idiot savant” when it comes to showcasing pumpkin carving’s artistic side.

“No one else is crazy enough to do this. It’s like a pumpkin boot camp around here,” she said back in Oxford, where the Reckners own a small house used exclusively for jack-o’-lantern production.

Eighteen artists and handlers work on the show, five of them full time, over a six- to eight-week period. Pumpkins are shipped to Oxford from farms in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Those used as show centerpieces typically weigh 100 pounds or more. Each of these “intricates” gets redone three of four times a season, depending on how fast it decomposes once it’s on display.

In Providence, the carved pumpkins are hollowed out, sprayed with a preservative made of bleach and water, outfitted with a 100-watt light bulb and parchment paper (to diffuse the light), and set out in staging zones. Thousands of more prosaically carved jack-o’-lanterns are added to the show to enhance the “wow” effect.

Danielle Gagnon of Oxford, another Passion for Pumpkins artist and production manager, has worked on the show for more than a decade. “I always loved being creative, showing my artistic side,” she said while carving a Mississippi riverboat, complete with deck railings and passengers, into the skin of a 120-pound pumpkin.

Another Oxford local, Susan Roderick, was putting the finishing touches on Gandolfini’s portrait, painstakingly scraping away layers of pumpkin skin to capture the late actor’s stubbly visage. Roderick figured to spend four hours on the project, one to draw and three to carve using a paring knife and dental tools. Rather than cutting out chunks of pumpkin, as most of us do, Reckner’s artists sculpt and thin the outer layer to produce intricate degrees of shading once the finished piece is lit from within.

“I love this medium,” Roderick said, peeling away slivers of pumpkin skin.

John Reckner swears he was no more obsessed with Halloween than the next guy until, in 1987, he read about a huge pumpkin display in rural Vermont. He took his family to see it, and the rest is Halloween history.

In 1988, Reckner enlisted friends and neighbors to help mount his first jack-o’-lantern show at a local elementary school. “At that time, Halloween was definitely rising in popularity, but the [illuminated carved] pumpkin really hadn’t evolved to where I thought it could be anyway,” Reckner recalls. “I was fascinated by the different images you could put on [pumpkins] with a Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post-type of illustration.”

Five years later, his Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular moved to a high school as Reckner began hiring commercial artists and illustrators to upgrade both its quality and quantity. In 1999, Reckner took the show to Salem, then moved it again the next year. Except for a four-year hiatus, it’s been housed at the Rhode Island zoo ever since.

Although Reckner may have been crowned “lord of the gourds” by at least one media outlet, he has some serious competition for that title. Wakefield native and Boston University grad Tom Nardone, for one, has turned creative pumpkin carving into a cottage industry that now includes three best-selling “Extreme Pumpkins” books.

In 1999, Nardone, an Internet entrepreneur, moved into a suburban Detroit neighborhood popular with trick-or-treaters. He didn’t own any Halloween decorations, he says mischievously, “But I had power tools, and I like lighting things on fire.”

Nardone’s creations, many of them gruesomely funny or politically incorrect, got him known locally as the “pumpkin guy.” He went on to create a website (www.extremepumpkins.com) and began making media appearances that have gotten him even better known. His signature creation is the aptly named “puking pumpkin,” which is every bit as grotesque as it sounds.

“What I like best about Halloween and pumpkin carving is, it’s one craft project everybody does,” Nardone said by telephone from Michigan. “We don’t all knit scarves or weave our own Easter baskets. But we do all carve pumpkins. And a carved pumpkin doesn’t have to be good, necessarily, to be lively and fun."

Nardone and other master pumpkin carvers — he calculates there are about 20 in the United States — stay connected through social media. During Halloween season, he carves — no, make that, assaults — about 500 pumpkins in all while performing stage shows or making appearances on TV shows like “Good Morning America.”

When it comes to “extreme” pumpkins, everybody has his own definition of what qualifies, Nardone said. “I consider myself an extreme carver, not a sculptor like some. I’m very showy. I have an act. I burn ’em. smash ’em, tell silly stories, and make a mess.”

On Halloween night, Nardone plans to wear his custom made trash-can disguise and scare the bejeezus out of trick-or-treaters who visit his house, seeking treats. John Reckner won’t be terrifying his neighbors, though. He’ll be in Providence instead, on what ironically is his show’s slowest night.

“Everyone is either out trick-or-treating or home handing out candy,” Reckner notes. Yet his jack-o’-lanterns will glow brightly nonetheless.

The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is open nightly, 6-11 p.m., through Nov. 3 at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Admission Monday through Thursday: $12 adults, $10 seniors, and $9 ages 3-12. Admission Friday through Sunday: $15 adults, $13 seniors, and $12 ages 3-12. www.rwpzoo.org

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How to make the perfect jack-o-’lantern

Choose a pumpkin that’s taller than it is wide. It’s shaped more like a human face.
Pick an interesting looking pumpkin — pimply, greenish, asymmetrical. Rounder isn’t always better, especially when you’re going for creepy.

When drawing a design, use a dry erase marker that easily rubs off as needed.

Ice cream scoops work best for hollowing out a pumpkin. Scrape loose all “guts” before dumping contents into trash or compost.

When removing top, cut a small notch for easy refitting. The best cutting tool for larger pumpkins is a drywall saw.

Shield your jack-o’-lantern from heat and moisture as much as possible.

To prevent premature rotting, treat with bleach and water solution.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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