Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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The pumpkin king

A Barrie otolaryngologist has carved out a niche for himself with his Halloween masterpieces

Rob Ballagh has a soft spot for carving imaginative pumpkins. Rather than traditional jack-o’-lanterns, his creations are menacing masterpieces. “I enjoy inflicting a bit of creativity on Halloween festivities,” confesses the Barrie, Ontario-based physician, who specializes in otolaryngology — head and neck surgery. 

Over the years, the 44-year-old has sculpted hundreds of pumpkins to delight neighbourhood trick-or-treaters and his two sons (now aged 15 and 12). Intricate designs ranging from evil skeletons and weathered faces to artistic creepy crawly creatures. 

“I like adding sinister props. A properly positioned ping pong ball with fake blood makes a great popped-out eyeball,” he laughs. He also spices up designs with plastic snakes.  

Rarely does he opt for something less evil. “My wife, Margot, has suggested carving Cinderella’s carriage, so I might try that.”

Carving exotic jack-o’-lanterns traces back to a wood-carving passion, a hobby he picked up while doing subspecialty training at Cambridge University in England. “I became fascinated with the architectural carvings in the city and decided to take a sculpture course,” explains Ballagh.

He still carves wood, but the medium switches to large orange vegetables during the Halloween season. “The fun thing about pumpkin carving is that it’s relatively fast. You can create something pretty remarkable in about 30 minutes.” For tools, a department store carving kit does the trick. “I found one with a coping saw and it works like a charm.” 

Each fall, Ballagh carves a bevy of pumpkins, all of which grace the family porch. He even plans to take one to the office this year. “I think my patients would get a kick out of it,” he chuckles.

As for his best compliment? “One year, a little kid came to the door, took a look at the pumpkins and ran back to his parents shouting ‘This house rocks!’ He was so excited about the pumpkins that he forgot the candy,” explains Ballagh who describes himself as an overgrown kid. He further enhances the Halloween spirit with a spooky lawn cemetery and by greeting young treat-or-treaters in costume (he’ll often have a horn or two sticking out of his head).

Cutting-edge lantern

When it comes to creative pumpkin carving, turns out this Barrie doc isn’t alone. “Pumpkin carving has really changed in the last 15 years,” explains pumpkin grower Scott Brown of Brown’s Farm in Dalston, Ontario. “Before it was triangles for the eyes and nose, and oddly shaped mouths with teeth. Today, the ideas are just limitless.”

Several folks have pumpkin carving parties, and many families buy and carve pumpkins for each member, says Brown, whose family-run farm hosts a pumpkin festival every fall. 

Interestingly, pumpkin carving isn’t just for Halloween. “There’s a growing trend to carve pumpkins for Thanksgiving,” says Brown.  Some fall weddings even feature carved pumpkins (or watermelons) with portraits of the bride and groom, or other wedding motifs like rings or bells.

Searching for carving inspiration?  Check out the carving kit stencils, which are readily available at most craft and department stores. Several websites, including: Spookmaster.com, Pumpkinmasters.com, and Carvingpumpkins.com offer free and/or fee-based artistic stencil downloads. 

Apart from countless demons and classic movie monsters, creative pumpkin carving stencils include: portraits of political figures like Barack Obama; historical figures like King Tut; sports team logos; various animals; superheroes and cartoon characters.

Picturesque city skylines and famous landmarks like the Statue of Liberty are also available. Three-toned carving pumpkin patterns (which requires the additional step of peeling the outside or some of the inside pumpkin flesh) are also very popular. 

Wicked web

Dan Cornette of Spookmaster.com, a website that offers about 300 creative carving patterns, says the site gets plenty of traffic, especially during the last week in October. “We get three to four million unique visitors per year,” says Cornette. The Halloween-themed site started in 2000 and has been growing strong ever since.

For US$5.95, customers get access to every downloadable pattern (some are also free), which they can keep forever. Cornette personally designs every unique pattern available on the site. “I just design things I see in real life. I get inspiration from tattoos (even though I don’t have any of my own), interesting people I see, and other types of things that I come across in real life,” explains the master carver. 

As for the growing popularity of pumpkin carving? “In my opinion, pumpkin carving gives people a creative way to express themselves,” offers Cornette. “It allows them to work on projects with family and friends, and gives them a simple way to have fun. Halloween has become the second biggest spending holiday in America mainly because it allows people to have fun and forget about their troubles for a while. 

It’s kinda like going to the movies only you get to make up your own story and participate in the acting.” 

Cornette offers this final advice to pumpkin carvers. “Just let go of any inhibitions and have fun.  Look for a pattern that really gets you excited (or at least makes you smile) then carve it and show it off.” 

Tricks o’ the trade

Apart from costumes, carving jack-o’-lanterns is one of Halloween’s most anticipated activities. Before carving into that orange flesh, some planning is required.

For starters, you must pick the perfect pumpkin.

“The best pumpkins are deep orange in colour and free of splits or bruises,” says pumpkin farmer Brown. A good stem and a flat bottom (so it can stand up by itself) are also important features.

Before carving, take a good look at your pumpkin and find its true character. Round pumpkins are good for making happy faces, while tall, thin pumpkins are better for scary or surprised expressions because there is extra room at the bottom for teeth.

For extra character, curly stems, gourds and other props can come in handy. “An oddly shaped gourd makes a great nose,” says Brown. “Smaller pumpkins work well for ears, and lollipops are a fun way to add hair,” he adds. 

While stencils are helpful to making your pumpkin a howling success — proper tools, such as a department store carving kit, make the job much easier. 

Whether you’re using a homemade design or stencil, tape your pattern to the pumpkin. Trace the design onto the pumpkin with a small nail, or the carving kit “poker” tool. Tear the pattern off the pumpkin once the pattern has been transferred. Washable markers can also be used for freehand designs.

Spread out the newspapers because the next part is messy.

Cut a lid that’s big enough for you to reach inside to clean all the messy innards. A thin serrated knife is best.

Once inside, start scooping out the innards with a large spoon, or ice cream scoop. Scrape the inside wall to a thickness of about 2.5 centimetres. This will make carving a lot easier. Remember to save the seeds for roasting.

Now that you’re ready to begin carving, Brown recommends keeping safety in mind. “Always point the knife away from you, use slicing motions, and keep your free hand away from the direction of the knife,” he explains.

To make your pumpkin last longer, apply a light coating of petroleum jelly on the cuts. It will also help seal the design. After carving, place the pumpkin in a cool dark place. Wrapping it in plastic and placing it in the refrigerator will help to deter dryness and mould.

As for lighting, use candles (scented ones add a nice touch). Novelty pumpkin lights, available at many craft, department and party shops, are also fun. Insert a bowl into the carved pumpkin and add dry ice and warm water to create an extra spooky, smoke-filled jack-o’-lantern. Fake blood and glow-in-the-dark paint can also be used.

To avoid the unpleasant smell of heated pumpkins, try sprinkling cinnamon and nutmeg on the inside for a pumpkin pie aroma.

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