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Pumpkin perfection



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October 02, 2013 - Art takes many forms.

For artist John Bradshaw, his work occurs not on the more obvious surfaces of canvas, paper, bronze, wood or clay—but on pumpkins.

His chosen medium is seasonal and his art lasts only weeks, but it fulfills his need to have a creative outlet and as he creates faces on pumpkins, he also brings smiles to real faces.

"I like seeing kids' faces when I do this," said Bradshaw, who plans to visit Oakwood Elementary later this month to do a pumpkin carving demonstration. "There's no money in this, but I like the public. I get pleasure from their reactions and talking to people."

The Oxford resident was at Ace Hardware in Ortonville on Saturday demonstrating his art to the delight of several passersby and had plans to do more demonstrations around the area, including Outdoor Adventures in Davison. In the next several weeks, he estimates that several thousand people will view his work.

Bradshaw first found a talent for art as a chainsaw distributor sales manager. He would do chainsaw carvings at shows for more than 25 years, even competing in lumberjack contests. In his early 50s, his wife encouraged his passion for art by enrolling him in a sculpture class taught by Raymond Katz at Oakland Community College in 1990.

"He asked me what my background was and I said, 'I'm a chainsaw carver, I've been doing this for 15 years,'" Bradshaw recalled. "He said, 'Good enough.'"

He went on to take every figurative art class offered at OCC for the next decade. Bradshaw enjoyed working with clay, ceramics, and bronze castings, as well as doing wood carvings with chisel and mallet. It was all building up, "to a crescendo," he remembers.

But six years ago, Bradshaw's art was suddenly silenced when he suffered a fall from a ladder. His left arm was broken in the accident and he now has a steel plate and bolts in the arm. He lost strength and dexterity in his left hand. His inability to do sculpture left him frustrated, with creative ideas and no way to bring them to artistic life.

Then one day, while watching the Food Network Channel, he saw a Halloween challenge and a contestant that was carving pumpkins.

"I thought, 'I can do that,'" said Bradshaw.

Now 68, Bradshaw carves between 50-75 pumpkins per year, beginning in mid-September and sometimes going into November. He has carved at Harvest Time in Oxford, at festivals, fairs and campgrounds. He has won awards in the Fuji Rite-Aid National Halloween Photo Contest, including first place last year.

He prefers to carve pumpkins that are 12-14 inches in height, but has carved a pumpkin that was 90 pounds. Larger pumpkins are easier to carve from the standpoint of being able to do more expression, but more difficult to maneuver, he said. Bradshaw has also carved a variety of squashes.

His creations have included dogs, pilgrims, various cartoon characters, gnomes, witches, Indians and Santa Claus. He has even carved a portrait onto a pumpkin for display at a funeral. The deceased, he explains, was a pumpkin fanatic.

"I carved a likeness of him from his photograph," Bradshaw said. "Photos are hard to work with even when doing a sculpture. You have to perceive the roundness of their face, but it was a big hit."

He buys thick-walled, heavy pumpkins from Middleton Berry Farm in Ortonville, which enables him to create more of an illusion of depth.

Bradshaw uses mostly wood chisels, as well as some clay tools to carve pumpkins. It can take up to 90 minutes to carve a pumpkin, but last year's winning pumpkin took under 30 minutes. He begins with a general idea of what he wants to create, but freeflow art is what he likes best.

"The biggest thing is the symmetry, you have to get both sides the same," he said. "The eyes are the most difficult. I love doing teeth. I usually do a pumpkin for my dentist and they go nuts."

Bradshaw has done roughly 300 pumpkins and said he has only broken two. He has learned to stop when the texture gets soft and he can feel resistance on the chisel. He does not carve through to the interior of the pumpkin, nor does he cut off the top and hollow out the pumpkin. While he notes that pumpkins are spectacular when illuminated, they will only last for two or three days if they are hollowed.

To make his pumpkins last, he uses a product called Pumpkin Fresh, but bleach water can also be used. The pumpkins will last two to three weeks, depending on weather. He uses cosmetics and pastels similar to chalk for color.

Bradshaw's advice for amateurs is to start slow and experiment, making sure you have the right tools.

"Don't be afraid, just dig in," he said. "Your first pumpkin won't be successful, it takes a few."

There are no pumpkins on Bradshaw's porch at Halloween, as he said he doesn't get any trick-or-treaters. Instead, his goal is to have all of his carved pumpkins sold to pay for the cost of his pumpkins and tools.

"This is the biggest time of my year, I get so wound up in this," said Bradshaw, who hopes to get back into art year-round with woodcarving again. "I actually dream about this. When I have a problem to solve, I do it the way Edison used to do it— I think of it at night before I lay down, I think of what I want to carve and I get up in the morning and have a vision."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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