Before Miriam Alarcon Avila moved to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago, she had never heard of pumpkin carving.
Now the artist looks forward to fall as a time when she can spend hours creating intricately decorated gourds.
Alarcon Avila, who lives in Tiffin, is also a photographer and is currently working on the Luchadores project, an effort to document the lives of Latino immigrants in Iowa through photography and storytelling.
Pumpkins are a different, more lighthearted form of artistic expression. She coaxes faces, flowers and geometric patterns from the round and ridged surfaces.
“Sometimes it’s revealing the soul of the pumpkin,” she said. “The fragility of the medium also brings a challenge and happiness.”
Crafting the perfect pumpkin isn’t easy; she can spend eight hours on a single squash. Knowing the piece will last just a few weeks before rotting away doesn’t bother her. When pumpkins aren’t in season, she sculpts sand; both mediums are fleeting, which she said is part of what she likes about them.
“It’s the beauty of knowing there’s beauty in everything, and that beauty is ephemeral,” she said. “It’s always moving, it’s never going to be there forever ... Knowing it’s only going to be there for a short time, it becomes more valuable.”
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She carved her first Jack-o’-lantern in a class with her children after moving to the United States in 2002. She has been creating artistic pumpkin carvings for about six years.
Her tips for beginners? The bigger the pumpkin, the better — bigger pumpkins have thicker walls with more room for carving. The first and most difficult step after selecting a pumpkin is peeling off the hard, top layer of skin from the surface you want to carve. With that tough layer gone, carving becomes easier. For her work, she uses the same tools she uses for clay or sand sculpting. Tools need to be sharp and could include carving or X-ACTO knives. For those who don’t want to strike out on creating their own patterns, pumpkin stencils are available at some stores and online.
Alarcon Avila likes to work with the dimensions of the pumpkin, creating relief and depth to make faces and flowers emerge. She uses lemon juice to stop oxidation on the exposed surface as she’s carving, and she avoids creating holes in her pumpkins to make them last longer, though she acknowledges many want holes for the traditional jack-o’-lantern luminescence.
Most of all, she advise people not to be afraid to dive in and let out their inner produce-based Michelangelo.
“You just need a very sharp knife and some time. It doesn’t matter how your skill is,” she said. “As long as you want to learn and experience and explore, you can come up with great things.”
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