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LAist Interview: Jim Olson, pumpkin carver

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Pumpkin carving is a time honored Halloween tradition in which millions of Halloweeners take a knife to the seasonal fruit and do our best to carve our own David. If my experiences are anything like yours, the resulting carving is less a work of art than an exercise in futility. That is why I was so amazed by Jim Olson, a 32-year Los Angeles resident, who set up shop Saturday and Sunday at The Grove where people can enter to win one of his carved creations. I sat down with the Minnesota native as he carved a pumpkin, chatted with onlookers and shared a few trade secrets.

How long have you been doing this?

25 years.

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What got you interested in carving pumpkins?

I'm an artist. 25 years ago I had a pumpkin and it sat on my counter for a week. I kept looking at thinking, What am I going to do with that pumpkin? I took out my pocket and started carving and six hours later I had a three dimensional face. It was just as if I had carved it out of a block of wood. And that was the start. I took some pictures, showed them to a couple friends, and they told me about some contest so I [carved another pumpkin] and won. Out of 4,000 entries, my pumpkin got first prize and I won $10,000.

Is six-hours the longest amount of time you've spent working on a pumpkin?

Yeah. But here's the interesting thing about that. I can't set this pumpkin aside and not work on it, because the flesh becomes rubbery and it wants to tear and doesn't want to cut. Once you start, you've got to stick with it until it's finished.

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What kind of art do you usually practice?

I'm a sculptor. I'm actually a designer for museums. I used to be in charge of exhibits at the Natural History Museum. But now, I design exhibits at the Petersen Museum. Design is where my real interest is. This is just fun; something different to do this time of year.

Do you sell these pumpkins?

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No. Farmer’s Market is giving them away. I've sold a few a few in the past on commission. A regular pumpkin takes two hours. Who wants to pay $75 an hour? Nobody wants to buy a pumpkin for $150, $250. (During the course of our conversation, people asked Olson about his website and if they can buy one of the carved pumpkins. "I have no website," he said, and "Nope, sorry, not for sale.") I [carve pumpkins] for a few friends that have kids and my wife always convinces me to do it for her each year. Though some years I do, some years I don’t. Some years I don’t even take the tools out. This year I've been a little more motivated.

What kinds of things motivate you to carve?

There was a hotel in downtown Los Angeles that used to have an annual competition to submit entries of politicians. So I did Mayor Bradley and won the first prize...

(Kids crowd the table, oohing and ahhing at Olson's carvings.)

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Are you ever amazed at their reaction?

Yeah, I'm actually always surprised. I've done this for so many years, that this is like second nature to me.

Are there faces that you like to carve more than others or features you like to carve?

Teeth are easy and fun to do and they add a lot to the expression. There was a family that was watching for the longest time. I made a series of eight dots (he shows me a piece of paper with eight faces in different moods, similar to emoticons). Just by putting the eyebrows over each [face], for example, it changes the whole look. If you understand those basic of cartooning and apply that to your carving, you'll be OK.

Do you draw a sketch in first?

I sketch it and it gets me started, then I go from there. The whole thing is about thinking in 3 dimensions. I'm building everything so he nose sticks out, or so the teeth stick out.

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When people create a piece of art, it can be a very personal experience. Because pumpkins have a shelf life of about a week and your detailed carvings will inevitably rot, do you have to detach yourself from the personal experience of making art?

Nah, this is perishable art. That’s part of the novelty, part of the fun of perishable art. I did an exhibit once [at the Natural History Museum], a sand painting by Tibetan monks of the Dalai Lamai. In the lobby of the museum for six weeks, they did this intricate sand painting on a big canvas and when they finished, they picked up the four corners and dump it in the ocean. After six weeks, they picked up the four corners and dumped it!

So, you view your art as temporary?

I view it as novelty.

You don’t seem to take this too seriously.

No, not at all.

There are always contests where farmers race to grow humongous pumpkins. Any though of carving an 800-pound pumpkin?

The problem is, for the size, you don't have a lot of thickness. So, you end up with a very flat sculpture and you're very limited with what you can do. It becomes more of a relief carving than a three-dimensional carving.

So, the key to a great pumpkin for carving, then, is thickness?

Heavy, it has to be heavy. If the flesh is thicker, it gives you more to work with.

How much do you think each of your pumpkins is worth?

Well, considering each one is going to end up in the garbage...not much.

When you care a face, do you have anybody in mind?

Yeah, sometimes I do. This one [I'm carving right now] is a longer face, which is one my wife likes.

She's been seeing these for 25 years, is she still amazed by the carvings?

Yeah, when I did this one this morning (points to one with blue eyes), she was all full of compliments. It's humorous to me that people get all excited.

Do you think peoples' excitement is silly?

I'd like to think that what this is all about here, with everybody watching, that you plant the seed that may germinate so they look at things differently at some point in the future. You know? You don't have to look at it as a gourd you punch holes in, there's another way to look at it. Some of these kids get intrigued and they watch and watch and watch. I hope that you plant that seed and maybe it will spark them to do something at some point in the future. You can only hope.

Kids are so impressionable that if you can do this and reach a kid, that's a great thing to do. At the end of the day, that's probably why I'm here.

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Jim Olson will be carving pumpkins from noon to 3 p.m. at The Grove today. You can watch him carve the pumpkins form scratch and enter to win one of them. You can also sit and chat with the man who is happy to spin a yarn and share a few tips.

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All photos by Jeremy Oberstein, for LAist. Carvings by Jim Olson.