UVA Library Lights Up Halloween Season With Local Carver’s Scary Pumpkins

October 27, 2020 By Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu

While Halloween will be eerily quiet on the University of Virginia’s Grounds this year, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library once again is displaying spooky carved pumpkins in its windows.

The special collections staff has given experienced carver Ed Morton a dastardly intricate and creepy literary design challenge for the two pumpkins he has transformed with his trusty X-Acto knife (equipped with a bright, tiny light at the tip).

Over the years, Morton, who’s the longtime partner of acquisitions librarian Barbara Hatcher, has become known for his exquisite carvings on pumpkins, and watermelons as well. For the library, he has carved UVA and literary themes – the Rotunda, Edgar Allan Poe and the raven that he wrote about in the poem with its refrain, “Nevermore.”

“He’s carved pumpkins for Harrison/Small for the past few years – usually featured just outside of the Reading Room, but last year we featured them on the front porch and in the windows,” exhibitions coordinator Holly Robertson said.

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Morton pumpkin carving
Morton began carving pumpkins, and then melons, for presentations, decorative platters and centerpieces more than 20 years ago when he worked in food service.

This year, he has carved two pumpkins featuring well-known artists whose works are in the special collections holdings: an image from Edward Gorey and an illustration from José Guadalupe Posada.

“Modern-day folks will recognize Gorey’s influence in Tim Burton films,” Hatcher wrote in an email, citing especially “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” This image comes from the poster for a play of “Dracula” starring Frank Langella, for which Gorey designed the set and costumes.

The library has several books and manuscripts related to or illustrated by Gorey, most of which are in the miniature book collection or pop-up book collection.

“Gorey’s surrealistic style can be described as macabre and creepy, and the unsettling nature of Gorey’s characters is perfect for a spooky Halloween theme,” Hatcher said.

Four pumpkin carvings
Pumpkins from past years included (from upper left, clockwise) Edgar Allan Poe; Poe’s raven over the Rotunda; Mexican skulls, or “calaveras,” for the Day of the Dead; and the headless horseman. (Contributed photos)

She and Morton agreed that the work of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada also would be appropriate for Halloween. The UVA Posada collection contains more than 150 broadsides, prints and illustrated books. 

Posada was a satirical illustrator working at the end of the 19th century known for drawing skeleton characters with “calaveras,” or skulls, which are associated with the Mexican holiday “Día de los Muertos,” or the Day of the Dead.

“The dark comedy and intricate nature of Posada’s illustrations were a perfect choice for our special collections pumpkin this year,” Hatcher said. 

Morton, who carved one of Posada’s calaveras astride a horse, said Posada “presents his skeleton-subjects with less horror.”

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Each pumpkin carving takes six to seven hours if uninterrupted, Morton said. Simpler designs take about four hours. As in other years, he said the pumpkins for UVA are generally more unusual or have more difficult themes than other requests. Sometimes library staff have suggested a display or collection he could use as a theme.

Morton began carving pumpkins, and then melons, more than 20 years ago when he worked in food service for presentations, decorative platters and centerpieces. He currently manages an ABC store and carves pumpkins and watermelons as a hobby. He’s made them for weddings and parties, as well as Halloween. Everyone wants one, he said, until it comes to what he should realistically charge for his time and effort. Typically, he charges businesses $60 to $80 for the most detailed ones.

And in case you’re wondering, pumpkins are fruit and related to melons, according to Southern Living, but it’s complicated. “Not all gourds are squash, but many squashes are gourds and a pumpkin is a squash and also a gourd,” said an article last year.

Last year was a great year, as far as interest and orders go, Morton said, but not so this year. With the COVID pandemic, people just haven’t been gathering together as they usually would.

The new designs, with their intricate details, can be viewed in the Harrison/Small windows, as part of the Halloween decorations on display.

With so many fewer people on Grounds these days, anyone can view Morton’s grinning gourds and scary scenes in these photos.

Drawing sketch of a pumpkin carving
One of the designs Morton carved is a “calavera” from an image by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.
Morton carving a pumpkin
When carving pumpkins or watermelons, Morton uses a precision craft knife with a fine point blade called an X-Acto knife. This one has a bright, tiny light at the tip.
Morton headshot
Morton has carved a wide range of images and designs on watermelons, as well as pumpkins, for parties and weddings.
left: image of the playbill of dracula. Right: pumpkin carving of the playbill
Artist Edward Gorey is known for his macabre and creepy characters, perfect for Halloween. This image comes from the poster for a play of “Dracula” starring Frank Langella for which Gorey designed the set and costumes.
Left pumpkin: Dracula getting ready to bite a woman Right pumpkin: headless horseman riding a horse
This year’s pumpkins, here lit up in a dark room, have been added to the seasonal display in the Harrison/Small windows.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications