by Michelle Falkenstein
Cheryl Bernstein is the only full-time art pumpkin carver for The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze —six other carvers are part-time or seasonal. Bernstein says she carves a thousand new art pumpkins each year for the annual event, which is held at Van Cortland Manor in Croton-On-Hudson. Art pumpkins are made from hard foam, and the Blaze uses a staggering 7,000 of them to create their extravagant displays.
“With anything intricate, we can’t use real pumpkins because they get soft and they’re too heavy,” Bernstein says. “Real pumpkins weigh 30 pounds. You can’t hang them. And they will ooze goo on people.” The art pumpkins are supplied by a Colorado-based company called Fun-Kins, which uses molds cast from real pumpkins.
Bernstein, who majored in studio art at Queens College, has been carving foam pumpkins for the Blaze since its inception in 2005. She says she enjoys working on the finer, more intricate designs, such as Celtic knots, which she cuts out with an X-acto knife.
The fall event is organized by Historic Hudson Valley, a nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1951 as Sleepy Hollow Restorations by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Each fall, Blaze visitors stroll a path through mountainous scenes constructed entirely of pumpkins. This year’s show features several new exhibits, including a fire truck and ambulance responding to a call, a Hansel and Gretel house, and witches stirring their brew. Old favorites like the Pumpkin Carousel, Windmill and a 25-foot-tall Statue of Liberty are also on view. The astronomically minded can visit the Pumpkin Planetarium for a pumpkin star show.
In addition to the art pumpkins, the Blaze uses 9,000 real pumpkins for ground displays over the show’s three-month run. These pumpkins must be replaced once a week and sometimes more often, depending on the weather—if it gets too hot, they rot more quickly. This year, temporary workers will scoop and carve the live pumpkins, along with Historic Hudson Valley employees. The job is usually done by a fleet of volunteers, but due to COVID-19, they will not be able to participate this year.
The real pumpkins are of the Howden variety, traditionally used at Halloween. They are grown on family-run Wallkill View Farm in New Paltz and shipped on nine flatbed trucks. The farm also provides hay and corn stalks for the Blaze.
In 2005, Bernstein was working as a historical interpreter at Van Cortland Manor, demonstrating how to hand-tie fishing nets, spin wool and make brooms, when she was invited to participate in a new fundraising event for Halloween. “I never thought I would be carving pumpkins full-time, but I love what I’m doing,” she says.
Because of COVID-19, all visitors to this year’s event must purchase a ticket in advance—there will be no tickets sold on site. Capacity has been limited to allow for social distancing, and everyone must wear masks. The dates of operation are through Oct. 31, as well as Nov. 1, 6-8, 13-15 and 20-21. Proceeds will support the programs of Historic Hudson Valley.
Bernstein’s four grandchildren also get in on the act, helping to light the candles in the live pumpkins. “When my grandson was four, he told guests to stay away from the candles,” she says.
Last year, said Bernstein, she took a few seeds home and planted her own pumpkins. “They took over my yard,” she says. “I learned my lesson.”
As for eating pumpkin in any shape or form, even pie, Bernstein is emphatic: no way. “I don’t even eat anything orange,” she says.
A version of this article first appeared in the October issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.