This post comes to us courtesy of writer and Williams-Sonoma creative consultant Laura Martin Bacon.
For some people, The Great Pumpkin is a playful cartoon legend—for Mike Valladao, it’s an annual reality.
Known across America as the ‘Picasso of Pumpkin Carvers,’ this self-taught botanical sculptor takes a six-week break from his real-life job as a software engineer every autumn. His mission: to transform pumpkins the size of Volkswagens into magical mega-gourd masterpieces.
It all started more than 25 years ago in the Northern California seaside town of Half Moon Bay — hailed as the ‘Pumpkin Capital of the World.’ That’s where Mike caught his first glimpse of a record-breaking Atlantic Giant pumpkin, weighing in at over 600 pounds. (To give you an idea of how much pumpkins grow with the times, last year’s largest local pumpkin weighed 1,775 pounds.)
Mike and his cousin Jerry were fascinated by the gargantuan gourd — and decided to try their own green (or orange) thumbs at growing giant pumpkins. After all, they’re descended from an Azores farming family that emigrated to the coastside 150 years ago and opened the area’s first feed-and-fuel store.
Not surprisingly, they were successful. “The first year, we had homegrown pumpkins that weighed more than I did,” Mike recalls. “Since I couldn’t think of what else to do with the pumpkins, I carved them — it just seemed like the logical thing to do.”
Even Mike’s earliest masterpieces weren’t your ordinary jack-o’-lanterns, though. He put his engineering expertise to work, manipulating a buck knife and chisels to create extraordinarily detailed sculptures that soon caught the attention of local pumpkin lovers.
A year later, he accepted the seasonal role of ‘Farmer Mike,’ the official carver for the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival — and the rest is pure pumpkin history.
Over the years, Mike’s turned his master pumpkin-carving skills into crowd-captivating performance art at fairs, festivals and other events around the country — and has even immortalized Jay Leno in pumpkin form in an appearance on The Tonight Show.
The pumpkins that Mike carves generally range from around a hundred pounds to over half a ton. Each meticulously sculpted creation takes up to four hours to carve—and he happily chats with onlookers the whole time he’s working. “There’s something about pumpkins that stirs up childhood memories,” Mike says. “Everyone seems to have a special pumpkin story they want to share.”
Looking at Mike’s colossal creations, you can understand why people are mesmerized—the precision-carved pumpkins are amazingly intricate.
“Giant pumpkins weigh hundreds of pounds, so there’s a lot more mass and density to work with. That means I have all sorts of options for manipulating depth and dimension,” Mike explains.
“I’ve developed a technique I call ‘pumpkin carving in the round,’ where I take advantage of the impressive thickness of a giant pumpkin shell (usually about six to eight inches thick) to create very intricate three-dimensional detailing.”
Even though Mike’s a down-to-earth guy who still feels a bit uncomfortable about being called an ‘artist,’ he derives his design inspiration the same way sculptors have for centuries—both from the world around him and the artistic medium itself (in this case, the shape of the pumpkins).
“I think about pumpkin designs all the time,” Mike admits. “For example, the inspiration for a pumpkin I carved recently—an old man with ringlets—came from an artwork I saw in a German cathedral. Other designs are inspired by museum works, famous people or fictional characters. At first, I used myself as a model—to learn how to carve realistic-looking teeth, I spent a lot of time smiling into a mirror. But when the pumpkins all started looking like me, I decided it was time to branch out!”
The secret to being a master carver, Mike says, is to see the possibilities in your pumpkins. “Anyone can do what I do,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re carving a giant pumpkin or a little one from your local pumpkin patch. You basically need to do two things—take your time and use your imagination.”
If you’d like to meet Farmer Mike and check out his pumpkin prowess in action, he’ll be at the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival this weekend, October 19th and 20th. For details, visit the festival’s website.