When Ashley Campbell moved to Vermont from New Jersey six months ago, it was to join her boyfriend, Michael Orfan, chef-owner of Rustic Roots restaurant in Shelburne. (Alice Levitt interviewed him for Seven Days in June.) Orfan is known for his charcuterie, but he's not the only one with knife skills: Campbell is one hell of a pumpkin carver.
And not just jack-o'-lanterns — she has made incredibly detailed portraits, such as the one here (for a bridal shower; it took her 12 hours) — corporate logos, wedding decorations, and more, as her website reveals.
Campbell says she got into carving pumpkins — along with her father, Steve — when she was still a kid. "When I was a teenager, I started making my own patterns," she says of the overlay designs that guide her knife. And at her previous job in New Jersey, Campbell says there was an annual pumpkin-carving contest, which she always won. "My designs got more and more complicated," she says.
In creating her patterns, Campbell points out, she has to "think in reverse," like an etcher. And unlike most of us, who just gouge out shapes from the outer to inner edge of the pumpkin, she delicately carves in layers. That controls how much light shows through when the gourd is illuminated from within, and the various thicknesses appear as "shading" in her designs. The detail is astonishing.
"I've gotten up to four layers now," says Campbell, who adds that she's experimented with projected patterns as well as vinyl ones. And never mind grabbing any old kitchen knife; Campbell uses carving tools for greater precision.
Why don't the pumpkins just collapse on themselves? The trick is simply not to cut all the way through, Campbell advises sensibly. She allows, though, that the process can be "tedious."
Campbell and her dad got media recognition back in New Jersey, but their greatest claim to fame was being invited onto "The Dr. Oz Show." Campbell confesses she'd never heard of the TV host and was so busy at the time that she was going to turn down the invitation. But then she found out who he is. "We went on the show," she concludes. "I carved a portrait of Dr. Oz."
Campbell, who is primarily a graphic artist, received commissions for her pumpkins in New Jersey and likely will begin to attract Vermont clientele. Her price for this temporal art? $100 to $150 — though she's charged $200 for particularly time-consuming jobs.
"I'm always shocked at how much people are willing to pay," she says modestly. "They just rot in two days."
Or not. Campbell actually passes on some advice for how to keep the carved pumpkin fresh for "a week or so." The secret, it turns out, is to keep it wet. "Bleach and lemon [juice] keep the mold away," she instructs. "Submerging them in water — with a little bleach — is even better." And if you happen to have a walk-in refrigerator, keep it in there.
If you've already cut your gaggle-toothed, diamond-eyed jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween, there's always next year — Campbell just might be giving demos, as she did occasionally in New Jersey. Meantime, you can see some of her handiwork on her Facebook page, and at Rustic Roots — where pumpkin is likely to be on the menu, as well.