Come Halloween, Pumpkin Carver Hugh McMahon Has No Trouble Scaring Up Famous Faces

updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Folks might think Hugh McMahon is out of his gourd when he says he has carved a seasonal career out of pumpkins. But McMahon, whose celebrity portraits in pumpkin earn him as much as $15,000 a year, is serious about sculpting squash. "The deeper you dig into the pumpkin," he says during a discussion of pumpkin principles, "the more it glows. What you're doing when you carve is creating a negative. When you turn out the light, you get the positive image. You're depending on the depth of the pumpkin skin to get cheekbones defined and so forth."

The resulting jack-o'-lanterns may have a shelf life of less than a week, but McMahon, 33, sells them for as much as $600 each. Original McMahon gourds have been displayed in New York nightclubs, department stores and restaurants for the past eight Halloweens. This year his renderings of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Pee-wee Herman are featured at Caroline's comedy club; he has also sold likenesses of Chief Red Cloud, Roman Emperors Caesar and Claudius, Sly Stallone, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, among others. "This is my big portrait year," he says. "Portraits are tough because they are always going to look a little ghoulish. I try to lighten them up so they don't look nasty. But generally people understand a pumpkin portrait has that effect."

McMahon's pumpkins may be a treat, but carving them can be tricky. "There's a fun side, but it comes to a point where it's just plain work and there's pressure to get them done." With the help of an assistant, McMahon can carve up to 10 a day. Among his tips for the amateur carver: Use light-bulbs, not candles—the effects will be more dramatic. To preserve the pumpkin, spray the surface with lemon juice. And always "keep the stem on. That tells you it's a pumpkin."

When he's not primping pumpkins, McMahon works as a free-lance illustrator. He also designs paper airplanes, one of which will soon be available in the Smithsonian's gift shop. He is aware that paper and pumpkin aren't exactly immortal media. "The idea of putting so much time into something that doesn't last too long—that's part of their appeal," he says. "I'm playing on the edge."

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