Gus Bynum’s unique jack-o-lanterns look as though they’re in on a joke, or at least a good secret. Their wide, expressive mouths curl in broad smiles. Their eyes–if pumpkin eyes can–really do seem to twinkle. Looking at them, you can’t help but smile yourself.
These are not your run-of-the-mill, front-porch jack-o-lanterns.There are no triangle eyes. No jigsaw mouths. But more than that, they are big. Yes, 100 pounds big, to be exact.
Pumpkins that size, usually Atlantic Giants or Prizewinners 50 inches or more around, allow for the 2-1/2- to 3-inch rind Bynum needs for carving his expressive faces.
“You have to take what the pumpkin gives you,” Bynum says on a chilly October afternoon while working on his latest creation. “I want them to be expressive.”
Finding his medium
Bynum–a Georgetown physician with 37 years of family practice under his belt–first began carving giant pumpkins in 1990.
His kids, Benjamin, now 32, and Anna, now 29, were still young at the time, and Bynum found himself one Halloween without a pumpkin to carve. He made a last-minute stop at the home of his friend Tom Fister–whose family owned Georgetown’s Double Stink Hog Farm, famous for its annual Pumpkinfest–and picked up a pear-shaped 50-pounder.
After that, Bynum was hooked on big pumpkins.
For more than 15 years, he worked on-site at Double Stink, carving two or three 100-pound pumpkins a weekend for each of the six weekends leading up to Halloween. That equates to roughly 200 pumpkins, but Bynum’s never stopped to count (though he does have a photo album with snapshots of dozens of his favorites).
He’s never sold one of his creations, either.
“People have asked me to sell them,” Bynum, 64, says. “But I would purposely price them high enough that they would change their minds. I do this just for fun. I set them out for decorations or just give them away to friends or neighbors.”
Around the time that Double Stink stopped having its annual Pumpkinfest in 2006 or 2007, Bynum retired from pumpkin carving for a couple of years.
By 2009, though, he realized he missed it. So did the trick-or-treaters in his neighborhood and other townspeople who drove by, all of them sad to find no mammoth jack-o-lantern on his front porch to greet them.
It just didn’t feel right having Halloween come and go without carving at least one giant gourd, Bynum says.
So, for the past couple of years, Bynum has carved one or two pumpkins each October for the pure fun of it. His wife, Sherry, enjoys watching Bynum at his hobby.
“It’s so impressive,” she says. “I’m not an artist at all, so it’s like magic to me.”
Artist at work
An accomplished artist as a child, Bynum sometimes begins by sketching his ideas for pumpkin faces on paper. He lets the shape of the pumpkin direct his design.
Then he copies the design onto the pumpkin with a felt-tip marker, and etches it out with a pocketknife.
Next he breaks out his wood tools: a No. 9 gouge and several smaller gouges, as well as a keyhole saw for areas where he wants to cut all the way through the rind.
He usually carves first around the nose and upper lip, to get the areas that will protrude to be the most defined.
“The noses are the hardest thing for me to do,” he says, while etching away at the orange outer rind to reveal the white pith underneath.
After the nose, Bynum tackles his favorite part: his pumpkins’ trademark feature, an enormously wide, smiling mouth.
“The mouth probably comes the easiest to me,” says Bynum in his slow, soft-spoken way. “I can reach up and grab my own mouth. Most of these (faces) are just exaggerated humanoid features.”
Last come the eyes. Sometimes, Bynum will gouge holes in the pumpkin and insert small gourds for the eyes. Other times, he carves them, complete with expressive crow’s-feet and dramatic eyebrows.
“You can add all manner of detail. Some of these have wrinkles and folds. But sometimes less is more. At some point you have to stop. It’s not going to last but a week, so there’s no point in spending too much time,” Bynum says.
The whole process takes about two to three hours to complete. Bynum doesn’t bother with hollowing out the pumpkin. He just cuts out a hole at the top big enough to insert a 15-watt light bulb to illuminate the inside.
It’s a long process, but that’s what Bynum enjoys about it. The rhythmic etching of the gouges. The slow unveiling of a face within the pumpkin rind. The creativity of working with a curved orange canvas–of getting an inspiration and going with it.
“It’s relaxing,” Bynum says simply.
The final product isn’t scary or spooky in the traditional Halloween sense. Bynum’s jack-o-lanterns are mirthful, expressive, intricate, beautiful. They are true works of art.
And his pumpkins have every right to smile. They know as long as Gus Bynum is carving jack-o-lanterns, it will be–for folks in Georgetown–a very happy Halloween.