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Gourd stories to tell: Suzy Mink carves pumpkin masterpieces

Gourd stories to tell: Suzy Mink carves pumpkin masterpieces

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Michelangelo nursed masterpieces from marble.

Diego Rivera painted utopias on walls.

Suzy Mink works in pumpkins.

It’s an ephemeral medium, for sure. Mink, who lives in Washington, D.C., but frequently commutes to Roanoke for her work as vice president for external relations at Hollins University, can hold onto one of her creations for three weeks at the longest — if she stores it in the fridge. But eventually, they all rot.

Although they exist in the world for only a short time, Mink’s pumpkins tell stories. As a pumpkin portraitist, she takes care to get the bridge of her subject’s nose just right, and, usually, manages to also communicate some truth about the individual’s inner self. With other pumpkin carvings, Mink sets a scene, with a building or a still life, to comment on contemporary society.

“This for me,” Mink says of her artistic pumpkin carvings, “is complete relaxation and fun.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Mink has fond memories of scooping out pumpkin innards with her three siblings. “Like all kids, we carved triangles and squares,” she said.

Although Mink has always sketched and painted, she didn’t approach pumpkin carving as an artistic endeavor until about 10 years ago. When passing through Union Station one day, Mink spotted a collection of pumpkin stencils of American presidents. She bought it. She picked up an inexpensive pumpkin carving set. As she sat to work on that pumpkin (a portrait of President Kennedy), Mink remembers thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”

The next year, Mink bought a book of generic Halloween stencils and made a monster pumpkin. She was hooked. The next year, Mink hired an artist to make her custom pumpkin stencils.

“I went online and just started looking at what other people were doing and found a couple of really cool carvers and looked at some instructions and followed some of their instructions and sort of taught myself from there,” Mink said. “And I’ve been at it ever since.”

These days, Mink makes her own stencils. She traces lines onto the pumpkins. Then, using a tool from a clay sculpting kit, Mink thins the walls of the pumpkin. “That’s what gives it the translucence,” she explained.

Carving her creations, Mink said, takes an hour at most. Mink sculpts in the dark with a candle placed inside the pumpkin, so that she can play with shadows. “So I only carve at night,” she said.

The question Mink gets asked most frequently about her pumpkin art is whether or not she sculpts other gourds. “I actually tried one watermelon, and it was terrible,” Mink said. “My work is based on light and dark.”

Over the years, Mink’s technique has evolved. “I used to carve all the way through and create a lot of holes in it,” she said.

Gradually, Mink explained, she’s learned to sculpt the pulp to create a 3D effect. “I look back at some of my old ones and go, ‘That was pretty simple,’” Mink said.

Bill White, a painter and professor emeritus of art at Hollins, has told Mink more than once he’d like to be under her tutelage. “I think they’re amazing,” White said of Mink’s pumpkin portraits. “It’s just bizarre, almost, to think that by the delicate layering of the depths of her cuts [she is] able to get that kind of subtle gradation of tones from the lightest to the darkest tones.”

The artist’s subjectsOver the years, Mink has carved subjects ranging from a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” to the landmarks of D.C. to a portrait of the Dalai Lama. “I’ve done everything,” she said. As a member of the class of 1974, Mink also often features Hollins on her pumpkins.

In 2018, Mink got to personally deliver a pumpkin portrait she carved of Alex Ovechkin to the Washington Capitals captain.

With the big election in November, many of the pumpkins Mink has carved this year have political themes, which she hopes might inspire her fans to watch the debates and vote. She’s careful to feature lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Frequently, Mink carves portraits in tribute to someone who has recently passed. “The first one of the year this year was Chadwick Boseman,” Mink said. “I didn’t know his work very well, but I thought, ‘OK, there’s a lot of emotion around this guy.’”

The second that news broke of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Mink heard from fans and friends asking, “You’re going to do RBG, right?”

Mink cried as she sculpted the Supreme Court justice. She considers the very detailed portrait one of her best pumpkins. “I had to honor her because people see these as tributes,” Mink said.

As she has posted pictures of her pumpkin creations on her website (minkpumpkinportraits.com) and on social media, Mink has found that her stans really ache for social commentary. “I get a lot of comments like, ‘I can’t wait for pumpkin season to see what you think is important in the world,’” Mink said.

The morning after the vice-presidential debate, Mink’s phone blew up. “People were like, ‘You’ve got to do the fly,’” she said. “So, I did the fly.”

Mink carved the coronavirus on one recent pumpkin. She also did a portrait of a masked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert. Another pumpkin featured a Zoom meeting. When she posted a photo of that pumpkin on her Instagram, Mink wrote, “Because this is all of us all the time.”

Sometimes, Mink tires of featuring the (often depressing) news of the day. “Now if I do something frivolous, it’s like, ‘Why’d you do that?’” Mink said.

She tells them that she carved Yoda because Yoda has a fun face to carve.

A bold movePortraitists are not always popular. Winston Churchill so thoroughly loathed one portrait that it, reportedly, had to be burned to ashes.

But Mink didn’t feel at all nervous about carving a pumpkin portrait of her new boss, Mary Dana Hinton, who became the 13th president of Hollins University on Aug. 1. She knew the pumpkin would be well received, Mink explained, because she captured Hinton’s warmth and caring nature in the portrait.

Hinton learned of the pumpkin when Mink sent her a picture of it in an email. “I looked at it, and I shrieked out loud,” Hinton said. “It’s incredible.”

“You’re really SOMEBODY when you get one of these,” Hollins employee Syreeta Combs-Cannaday wrote on Instagram when Hinton posted her pumpkin.

A few nights later, Hinton’s husband called out to say that someone was on their front porch lighting something. Mink had delivered the goods.

Hinton couldn’t hug Mink because of the pandemic, and that was hard.

“It’s an honor,” Hinton said, “when someone holds you closely enough in their heart that they want to create a version of your image, that they see you as a human being, and they honor your humanity enough to carve it into something.”

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