Carving out a niche in gourd art

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Gus “Squashcarver” Smithhisler gets started on a custom pumpkin carving at the Plain City Fall Festival on Oct. 16.

(Posted Oct. 19, 2021)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

Anyone who spent time at Plain City’s Fall Festival on Oct. 16 likely saw Handsome Harold take shape.

Over the course of three hours, Gus “Squashcarver” Smithhisler of Columbus carved the image of a strutting rooster into one side of a 410-pound pumpkin and called the creation “Handsome Harold.” The next day, he carved the likeness of golf legend Jack Nicklaus into a 424-pounder at the MAiZE at Little Darby Creek, a corn maze in Milford Center.

Smithhisler wraps up this season with a stint at the Circleville Pumpkin show Oct. 20-23, appearances at Columbus Zoo’s Boo at the Zoo Oct. 23 and Oct. 30, and an afternoon at the Easton Fall Festival on Oct. 24 at Easton Town Center in Columbus.

“This is a busy time of year,” said the self-taught artist who has been carving pumpkins professionally for two decades.

Finishing up after nightfall, Smithhisler poses with “Handsome Harold” at the Plain City Fall Festival. The carving took three hours to complete.

So, how does one get into the pumpkin carving trade? For Smithhisler, it started with a penchant for growing giant pumpkins. The idea to get creative with the produce came in 2001 when he entered his prized gourds in the Indiana State Fair Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Looking at the piles of pumpkins, he thought it a shame they were headed straight for the compost heap and figured he’d give them a second life as art.

In the 20 years since, Smithhisler’s handiwork has been featured locally and across the country, from the Ohio State Fair and Circleville Pumpkin Show to the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. He even appeared on Season 6 of “Halloween Wars” on the Food Network.

Smithhisler’s unique brand of performance art starts with, of course, the pumpkins, which he sources from a network of growers he’s come to know on the carving circuit and as a former grower himself.

“I always like to get them locally if I can,” he said, noting the Kleiber farm near Plain City provided the pumpkins for last weekend’s Handsome Harold and Jack Nicklaus creations.

As for how he decides what image to imprint on the gourd canvases, Smithhisler gets input from his customers and inspiration from each pumpkin’s unique features.

“Typically, I don’t have an image in mind when I got to an event–it’s just whatever I come up with,” he said. “I never repeat designs. Every one is unique and custom-made for the people who hire me.”

On Oct. 17, Smithhisler carved Jack Nicklaus (aka “The Golden Bear”) into the side of a 424-pound pumpkin at the MAiZE at Little Darby Creek in Milford Center.

The time it takes to finish a carving depends on the size of the pumpkin and the design, he said. He typically spends three to four hours on most pieces. The story is different for the 1,000-pound behemoths he encounters at the Circleville Pumpkin Show–those take five to six hours to carve.

Smithhisler does most of the events himself, but when bookings overlap, he has one carver he works with on a regular basis, as well as guest carvers. His wife helps with the foam and fiberglass carving side of the business. He also carves cheese, fruits, and vegetables year-round.

Carving isn’t the only thing Smithhisler does for a living. He also works full-time as an engineer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The Handsome Harold carving from the Plain City Fall Festival will be on display for as long as it lasts at the park office at Pastime Park. The Jack Nicklaus carving will be on display at the MAiZE at Little Darby Creek through the end of the month.

To see more of Smithhisler’s creations, visit https://squashcarver.com.

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