Hugh McMahon quite literally carved a name
for himself in the art world, but unlike his knife-wielding colleagues
who ply their trade on marble or wood, McMahon works with pumpkins.
McMahon may be the world’s only professional pumpkin carver, transforming the Halloween staple into ghostly portraiture. Not the typical jack- o-lantern, McMahon’s are ethereal caricatures of pop-culture icons, political figures and even local celebrities like Harvey Lichtenstein, the former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Now successful in his craft, the fruits of his labor cost between $75 for simple designs to $1,000 for the more intricate showpieces and have gained the patronage of such elite restaurants as Tavern on the Green, The Rainbow Room and the Hard Rock Cafe.
McMahon’s work has been shown on "Good Morning America," "Late Night with Conan O’Brien" and "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee" - both of who saw their portraits carved into a pumpkin.
The work itself is an eerie reversal of darkness and light, best described by McMahon himself as resembling a photonegative. By cutting away at the skin of the pumpkin, McMahon achieves the necessary varieties of shade and depth, with an otherworldly glow beaming through the eyes and mouths of his pulpy medium. McMahon considers his work a negotiation between positive and negative.
"You carve the negative, and the positive glow comes out," McMahon said. "You pay attention to the light, not really what the pumpkin is doing."
In contrast to painting or sculpture, the process is not the formulation of an image but an inversion into the given.
"You’re inverting the impression, but it glows out positive," McMahon said. "When you carve into a pumpkin you carve into what the pumpkin [is]."
McMahon began his craft, like most novices, carving pumpkins on Halloween in his hometown of Chicago. He moved to Brooklyn in his early-20s for "the bright lights, big city."
More than 20 years ago he carved a jack-o-lantern for a Halloween party in Brooklyn Heights for his sister. The guests were so impressed by the work that he was encouraged to supplement his income by selling some of his designs.
Appropriately he made his first sale at the restaurant "Ichabod’s" named after Ichabod Crane from the Washington Irving story, "Sleepy Hollow," featuring the headless horseman, who wore a pumpkin in lieu of a head.
Today, after almost a quarter-century of pumpkin carving, McMahon lives in Brooklyn Heights and has a successful clientele that orders his works for events and decorations. On Wednesday, Oct. 10, McMahon was off to Chicago to carve images of U2 and Mayor Richard Daley.
The world of politics has long been an inspiration for McMahon. In the past, he has carved both Hillary and Bill Clinton and was even a guest at the White House to present then-President Ronald Reagan with a pumpkin carved into the shape of a turkey for Thanksgivings festivities.
At a recent fair McMahon carved an American Flag into a 550-pound pumpkin and he’s in negotiation to carve the world’s biggest pumpkin - 1,260 pounds.
McMahon has yet to decide what he’d like to see manifested in a 1,000-plus-pound pumpkin, but it’s weighing heavily on his mind.
"I don’t know what yet," he said. "I’d have to think about it."
Predictably, Halloween is his busiest season but McMahon gets through the off-season by cutting its warm-weather counterpart, the watermelon.
"I do watermelons in the summer, but I don’t get as much work," McMahon said. "Because there’s no tradition of watermelon carving."
McMahon was hesitant to pit the two fruits against each other, but he did say most of his more esteemed subjects have been represented in pumpkins. As for potential subjects:
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani?
"I have done Giuliani in a watermelon for the Police Athletic League," McMahon said. "That’s more because it was out of pumpkin season."
Borough President Howard Golden?
"I guess because his name is Golden, a pumpkin would be more appropriate."
"I’d call her a pumpkin."
With so many pumpkins, is there a quintessential watermelon?
"A very good subject for the watermelon is the American flag," McMahon said, solidifying respect for the summer fruit in such an earnest subject. He emphasized that the innate reds and whites of the melon are salient features in its transformation.
However, he said, "[It has] more [to do] with the season than an identity."
He is also able to carve artificial pumpkins, one of which sits in a restaurant called Noodle Pudding at 38 Henry St. and was intended to be used to assist some of those affected by the World Trade Center disaster. The stryofoam pumpkin was carved into the shape of a fireman’s helmet for a collection jar for families of Engine 205/Ladder 118, around the corner on Middagh Street.
"Everybody loves a pumpkin," he said.
To order a Hugh McMahon jack-o-lantern, call (718) 625-6171 for a brochure.