This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Marc Evan, the co-owner of Maniac Pumpkin Carvers. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Pumpkins have a relatively short shelf life. This means for artists like me, whose seasonal business primarily revolves around carving pumpkins, there’s no room for error or do-overs.
Unlike canvas, where you have the luxury of pausing and returning to your work, when it comes to a perishable medium like a pumpkin, it’s a race against the clock to get the job done and the finished product out the door and into the client’s hands. No matter how far in advance a client commissions a job, we typically carve everything within 24 hours of when it’s needed to ensure it looks its best.
I run Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, which I started in 2008 with my childhood friend Chris Soria after graduating from college. We work out of a temporary, 6,000-square-foot storefront in Westchester, New York, and our sought-after carved creations start at $150 and can go into the thousands.
Our pumpkins have been displayed at The Museum of Modern Art and Yankee Stadium. We also provide both virtual and in-person carving classes, corporate workshops and team-building events, and live demos, and we even make and sell carving kits for DIY-types.
It often takes 10 or more hours to carve a single pumpkin
The timing depends on its size and the design. Our artist-inspired series, which recreates masterpieces from the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Dali, and da Vinci, which are among my favorite projects, can take 16 to 20 hours for each pumpkin.
It’s good practice in nonattachment, as there’s something beautiful and magical that occurs with knowing from the outset that our creations are only temporary. When I’m carving a pumpkin, I get into a sort of Zen flow state that becomes more about the process than the product.
The most challenging part that goes into the process isn’t the perishability factor or the hours it takes to carve a pumpkin but all the logistics surrounding the project that need to be addressed before we’re even in a position to sit down and begin carving.
When you take your art and turn it into a business, there’s a lot of prep work and components that need to be factored in
Because we work with a lot of corporate clients, there are often nondisclosure agreements to sign, since we’re involved in brand-related discussions with their team; substantial insurance requirements, especially in instances in which we’re working on-site for a live event or demo and it involves attendees; and tons of back-and-forth with clients about what the design, logo, or branding will end up looking like.
The sheer number of conference calls and meetings that occur before we can even pick up a tool and start carving would blow your mind. Those alone can often take way longer than the carving time. Everything from the intricacy of the design to the amount of time it will take our carvers to complete the project to the time we spend on prep work is taken into account when it comes to our pricing.
We once had to carve 50 pumpkins in 36 hours for the MLB World Series in New York when the Yankees played. This job blew our minds because first off, we’re New Yorkers, but also because it was the most pumpkins we’d had in a single order at that point by far.
Pumpkin carving as an art form has grown exponentially over the years
When Chris and I first launched the website for Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, we got in at the right time and were considered pioneers in the field because no one was really doing what we were to the extent we were. We were really taking a nostalgic pastime like pumpkin carving that we did at home as kids and elevating it into an art form.
Word about us got out after Wired did anarticle on us in 2009. That’s when our phone started ringing with commissions and event inquiries from the Food Network and Martha Stewart, which is ironic since Chris and I first learned basic pumpkin-carving techniques watching Martha on TV as kids.
That’s when we realized that this could be more than just a little thing we did on the side. But back then, there was no playbook or business model for what we were doing, so we just learned along the way. Everything about business was new to us, from where to source the pumpkins to experimenting with new styles and techniques to determining pricing to figuring out delivery.
Today, our clients include American Express, BMW, CBS, Delta, Disney, Marvel, NBC, the NFL, Nickelodeon, Pepsi, Porsche, and “Saturday Night Live.”
In the early stages of the business, Chris and I were roommates and started it out of our apartment
Chris and I first met back in 1992, when we were in middle school on Long Island. We always did a ton of scary, spooky artwork and loved to celebrate Halloween.
After high school, Chris and I both went to Parsons School of Design in New York City. When we weren’t in class, we worked at a series of local bars and restaurants around town.
We were roommates after we graduated from college, and each year for Halloween we’d throw elaborate costume parties and carve pumpkins for fun, often bringing them to our jobs and displaying them for the holiday. It wasn’t long before people took notice of our work, and before we knew it we were getting inquiries about commissions and requests to do live demos.
The farmers market Union Square Greenmarket in downtown Manhattan was home base for us for a very long time. It was a great place to display our work to the public. Plus, we established a lot of friendships with farmers we still work with today.
Back then, it was always a funny experience trying to hail a taxi from the Greenmarket and stuff 30 pumpkins into the back seat. One of us would bait the taxi in and pretend they weren’t with the guy with all the pumpkins, and as soon as the taxi pulled over we’d both start dumping pumpkins in and promising we’d tip really well.
As we outgrew our apartment, we’d rent everything from small commercial spaces to pop-up storefronts and warehouses
For the past two years, from September to November, Maniac headquarters have been inside a vacant storefront in Ridge Hill, an open-air shopping mall in Yonkers. We’ve got a lot more space now than we did previously — plus there’s a good deal of foot traffic here. It’s also a lot easier to just deliver into New York City than to actually work in the city and deal with traffic.
We have stations for our team of artists, a photo studio where we produce time-lapse videos and social-media content for clients, and space to teach in-person classes and workshops. We have a core crew of six artists and are able to bring in other artists as needed. We’ve also got an in-house crew of studio assistants as well as support staff and delivery people. Our team varies between 10 and 20 people, depending on what we’ve got going on, and we mostly find people through word of mouth.
Because pumpkin season is so short, it’s like a crash course in pumpkin carving for the artists we bring on board
We typically recruit top-level artists who have certain skill sets and whom we’re confident we can quickly teach how to carve pumpkins; we believe it’s easier to take a great artist and turn them into a pumpkin carver than bring in someone with carving experience and try to teach them how to make better artwork. Most of the time, our artists hand-carve the pumpkins and rely on tools like chisels, knives, and clay-sculpting tools versus using anything electric or powered.
We get a healthy mix of commissions, corporate and social events, advertising, live and virtual classes, and demos, and we have a very finite window of time to make it all happen. Some evenings, I don’t even make it home to my wife and kids.
Once we get into October, me, Chris, and some of our artists pretty much work around the clock and take naps in the studio when we need to recharge. On average, Chris and I can work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, during the month of October. Sometimes several days go by when we haven’t left the studio unless we’re running out to a live event or demo.
That’s why we call ourselves Maniacs, I guess.