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Local artists’ pumpkin carvings draw national attention

Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular featured in national media, brings funds and crowds to Roger Williams Zoo

As he trekked mountains in northern Vermont with his family 27 years ago, John Reckner chanced upon a bright idea. The brilliant display of hundreds of jack-o-lanterns set up along the mountainside was “impressive,” he remembered, and inspired him to create his own version of the jack-o-lantern show, which has since become a Rhode Island feature.

“A light bulb goes off,” Reckner recalled nostalgically. “I just visualized giant pumpkins with illuminated images — presidents, entertainers — put in a background setting like wooded environment with music corresponding. That’s where it all originated.”

Reckner and about 35 other dedicated artists take a six-week hiatus from their regular jobs and lives to participate in the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular. Reckner started his organization, Passion for Pumpkins, in 1988 with a small group of friends and fellow artists who worked together to create the show. The group has since expanded and carves about 130 ornate pumpkins and 5,000 smaller background pumpkins each week that “capture the imaginations, hearts and minds of audiences,” according to the organization’s website.

Reckner, a retired mailman, now gets to express the artistic sensibilities he gained in art school full-time. Since every pumpkin has to be redone weekly, Reckner tries to “give (his fellow artists) a little flexibility, so they don’t get bored doing the same (pumpkin) four times.”

Throughout the month of October, over 20,000 pumpkins are carved, each of which takes approximately three to four hours, Reckner said. Some of the more intricate pumpkins, such as the replica of a Maxfield Parrish painting, take a little longer — the Parrish carving took 10 hours. Reckner said he sees value in the countless hours spent on these detailed pumpkins. “That’s what people appreciate … That’s the nature of the beast.”

The Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular is a treasured Rhode Island tradition and was even recognized as a “National Local Legacy” — part of the Local Legacies initiative to commemorate events and landmarks that “celebrate America’s richly diverse culture,” according to the initiative’s website — by the Library of Congress in 1999. Reckner’s vision, which started as a modest fundraiser for the town of Oxford, Massachusetts in 1988, has, as he put it, “mushroomed” into a significant event for Rhode Islanders and the Roger Williams Zoo.

Reckner began his partnership with the zoo back in 2001. The show ran from 2001 to 2004, then went on a brief hiatus until 2009, and has been running ever year since then at the zoo. With the help of marketing by the zoo, the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular has grown into a national phenomenon. Featured on Martha Stewart Living, the Travel Channel and CNN, the intricate art show has lured fans “from all over the world — Australia, China, all over Europe,” said Alexandra Weston, communications representative at the zoo.

“It’s just one of those fall traditions that’s just blown up,”  Weston said.

Sponsored by Citizens Bank, the Spectacular has become the zoo’s largest fundraiser, attracting over 135,000 people last year. Since the zoo is managed by a nonprofit organization, the Rhode Island Zoological Society, the event helps finance the upkeep of the zoo.

Trisha O’Neill, a resident of Providence for more than 25 years, started coming to the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular 10 years ago. O’Neill said she hopes to pass on the tradition to her daughter, Emily, who made her first trip to the show this year.

“There’s a reason I keep coming back,” O’Neill said. “I love seeing the themes come to life with the lights and the music. It’s just so incredible to see how intricate their carvings can be, and I want (Emily) to see how art can come in so many different forms.”

Victoria Chavez ’18 also paid her first visit to the zoo’s showcase this year. She said she did not know what to expect of the show, but that she was surprised by the magnitude of the art on display.

Though Chavez said the zoos back home in Chicago host Halloween-themed activites, she “had never seen or thought of Jack-O-Lanterns as possible great pieces of artwork.”

This year’s theme, ‘Jack-O-Lanterns from A to Z,’ features pumpkins inspired by ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to ‘the Zoo’ itself with everything from ‘Christmas’ and ‘Inspiring People’ animated on the pumpkins, too.

Though not an artist herself, Chavez said she admired the hard work and time put into the displays because “many cultures and ideas (were) represented and the idea…is something really unique.”

“I loved the section for R, which stood for ‘Remember,’ where homage was paid to Robin Williams and other great people,” Chavez said. “Although all the pumpkins were truly incredible, the one that caught my eye the most was one of the very first pumpkins I saw. It was a face made of arms. I’m not sure why, but it left a lasting impression.”

As Halloween looms, the show is getting ready to wrap up for the year. It will continue to run through Sunday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., with one extended hour Saturday.

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