Chronicle jack-o’-lantern contest winners speak
by Natalie Hormilla
“You have to look at the pumpkin, and see what it tells you,” said Lila Winstead of Glover, about one of her rules of pumpkin carving.
Ms. Winstead is usually a winner at the Chronicle’s annual jack-o’-lantern contest, and 2013 was no exception.
She was one of three winners in the adult category this year. She won with a smaller pumpkin that featured an intricately carved face.
“That’s my fallback,” she said. “Every year, I think, it should be a face.”
There was also the matter of practicality in coming up with her idea.
“I was tired, and I couldn’t think of a big project, and I do indeed have rules — I’m a classicist.”
The jack-o’-lantern face is meant to sit by the front door of a house to keep away gremlins this time of year, Ms. Winstead said.
“In my heart of hearts, that’s what I really believe, that the pumpkin is a face. Nice things should not be depicted on the face. Sweet things — that’s not Halloween.”
Because her design this year was simple and direct, she carved her entry using just a curved, fish fileting knife.
“If you get into an elaborate design, there are carving tools, and some people use linoleum cutters. A thin, sharp knife will never go wrong.”
Ms. Winstead said she’s been a winner the past five years in a row. She thinks her streak is amusing.
“It’s very funny, because there’s so many good pumpkins. We like getting the Chronicle. I keep telling my husband, at some point this is going to end.”
All adult winners in the contest win a subscription to the Chronicle.
“But I have never, ever won best in show,” Ms. Winstead said. “I’ve never won the Don Sunseri award.”
When pressed for advice on how to carve a jack-o’-lantern well, she offered the following:
“Clean it well. Do a good job in cleaning, because then, on the inside, you get good, clean, crisp openings, and your light is nice. If you want to go for the shaggy kind of guts look, that’s a whole other thing.”
Meredith Holch of East Hardwick is another of the contest’s familiar winners. She carves as part of a group, at the home of Ms. Winstead and her husband, Jack Sumberg, on most years. The friends share dinner, then they go to the contest together.
“I moved to New York City for five or six years, and one of the reasons, when I was thinking of moving back to Vermont, one of the clinchers, was the Barton Chronicle pumpkin contest,” Ms. Holch said. “I really missed it.”
She thinks she first entered the contest when she was a Bread and Puppet puppeteer, living in Glover. “Oh heavens, it would have been in like ’88 or something like that.”
Her entry this year began with a false turn.
“It’s a crazy story. I was in Massachusetts. I took my mom to the town she grew up in, and we went to get pumpkins,” Ms. Holch said. “I got this really big pumpkin and I put it in the car, and on my way back taking the cart back to the place, I saw this other pumpkin, and I instantly had this idea for that pumpkin. I looked at it, it was tall, and I thought, too bad I didn’t get that one, because that would be a jail with a guy trying to get out.”
But then she’d have to explain to her mother, who was sitting in the car, why she was switching the huge pumpkin for another, and she’d have to go back inside the store to make the exchange because the other pumpkin cost $2 more. “And it just seemed too complicated,” she said.
The night before the contest, sitting down with the pumpkin she purchased, her regret only worsened.
“I kept staring at it, and staring at it, and wishing it was the other one. It was too round for bars.”
Then she had a thought.
“I live near this guy Ben, of Ben’s Pumpkins, and I thought, maybe he has one like that.”
And he did.
Ms. Holch then bought a tall pumpkin to fit her idea, and her winning entry Sunday featured a jailed man whose hands curved around prison bars and whose face stared sullenly at the contest viewers.
“It was such a clear vision in my head,” she said of her design. “I saw my final product when I saw the pumpkin.”
Ms. Holch carved her jack-o’-lantern using only a Swiss Army knife.
“It’s like my most natural, easy medium,” she said, on why she carves pumpkins. “I like to carve but don’t do it often anymore. I look at a pumpkin and have these great ideas. And it’s so easy to carve them. It’s almost as easy as carving soap.”
The other adult winner this year was also a regular, Meg Gibson of Glover.
Ms. Gibson also said that her design ideas come from the shape of the pumpkin itself.
“Every year when I do the pumpkin contest, I let the pumpkin, or whatever I’m carving, speak to me and tell me what it wants to be,” she said. “I try to let myself be inspired by the shape of it.”
Ms. Gibson won this year with a depiction of a dragon hatching from its egg, and she carved that from an unlikely fruit.
“It was a watermelon that has been sitting on my kitchen table for probably two months. We kept meaning to eat it,” she said.
Instead of finally eating the watermelon, Ms. Gibson had a vision. “I thought, it kind of looks like a dragon egg,” she said.
She carved the winner with just a small knife and the help of a couple of bowls.
“There’s a lot going on inside a watermelon, it was really juicy.”
Ms. Gibson has won the contest at least four times.
“I’ve been entering the contest I think every year since I was five years old, except for years when I was in college and when I moved away,” she said.
The contest is a family tradition for Ms. Gibson. Her mother, Peggy Day Gibson, started the contest when she was an employee at the Chronicle. Also, Ms. Gibson’s sister, Leanne Harple, is a judge every year.
“She’s a judge and my job is to put a pumpkin in there that she’ll vote for in spite of herself,” Ms. Gibson said of her sister. “Every year she gives me a look as she’s handing out the prize, like a kind of exasperated look.”
“She never, ever sees my pumpkin before it goes up,” Ms. Gibson added.
Making her sister acknowledge her carving prowess isn’t the only facet to Ms. Gibson’s competitiveness.
“Part of my inspiration is to beat Lila, too. You want to beat everybody, but she always brings it.”
The Chronicle’s contest splits entries into two big groups — kids aged 16 and younger, and adults. From the adult pool, three winners are chosen, plus a runner-up. From the kid pool, there are winners and runners-up in a variety of categories, like Scariest, Most Spooked, Funniest, and so on.
This year’s winner for Most Amazing was Henock Palin, 14, of Newport. His winning entry featured a spooky witch’s face, complete with a pointy hat, carved from crescent shapes that tapered into a point.
“It just popped into my head,” he said of his design.
He carved his pumpkin at his cousin’s house, where he spent some time searching for inspiration. The design took about two hours to carve, he said.
“It took a lot of patience.”
He pulled it off with the use of small knives.
Of all the distinctions awarded at the contest, there is one in particular that is perhaps most coveted — the Don Sunseri award.
That award is named after the late Mr. Sunseri, who was a perennial winner of the contest, said Ms. Day Gibson as she greeted carvers and guests Sunday.
The award is something like a “best in show” and is given to a carver whose work is creative and carried out with fine craftsmanship. The Don Sunseri award can be won by any entrant, adult or kid.
“I was extremely surprised,” said Michelle Lussier of Glover about winning the Don Sunseri prize this year.
This was only her second year entering, she said.
She won with a small pumpkin she carved into the face of an owl.
She spent some time perusing the website Pinterest for inspiration, and then the idea just came to her. She has a strong interest in owls anyway, and her entry last year depicted an owl sitting on a tree branch, she said.
“Mostly I used, like, a kitchen knife,” she said.
But when she attempted some finer detail, the knife wasn’t the best tool.
“My boyfriend said, I have a drill if you want to use that, so I said, let’s give it a try.”
She drilled decorative holes, and completed some of the detail work with the aid of that power tool. Then she cleaned out the inside of her jack-o’-lantern with a spoon.
Her entry almost didn’t make it to the Barton Memorial Building Sunday.
“I almost actually didn’t enter,” Ms. Lussier said. “I finished my pumpkin at 5:30. The contest started at 7 p.m.
Ms. Lussier said she does a lot of crafts in her spare time, like making cards and jewelry and painting.
She grew the pumpkin she carved herself, and that design took her a little over an hour, she said.
As of Monday, her prize-winning pumpkin was just sitting on her table.
“I’m probably going to give it to my grandmother,” she said.
contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]