Arts and Culture

Smashing: The artists behind the pumpkins at the Minnesota Zoo

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Minneapolis artist Susannah Belbas has been carving pumpkins for the zoo for three years. "My favorite tool that I have is a bobby pin that was tied to a stick and glued on and then sharpened to a point," Belbas says.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

On a rainy October day, an open air warehouse tucked deep into the Minnesota Zoo grounds is filled with artists and pumpkins.

It’s the Pumpkin Artist Workshop, where the artistry happens for the Apple Valley zoo’s Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular

“Nobody is trained in pumpkin art,” says Brian Christensen, pumpkin artist and the workshop manager. “Everybody here is an artist of some form and we all kind of just fell into it.”

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Workshop manager and pumpkin artist Brian Christensen (left) helps workshop artists with their design concepts.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

The event is in its fifth year and is a collaboration with the Kentucky-based nonprofit Passion for Pumpkins and a farm in Rosemount that grows the pumpkins.

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Most pumpkins take three to eight hours to complete. The most intricate designs, however, may take up to 30 hours.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

At any one time, 5,000 pumpkins are on the zoo’s wooded trails. However, over the span of the event, Sept. 30-Nov 4., around 8,000 pumpkins are lit in total. Several hundred of those are masterpieces, carved by about 30 local artists, in a workshop that is open seven days a week.

“There's always a new pumpkin, or 20, on the trail,” Christensen says.

And the artist's pumpkins are huge — yoga-ball size — weighing anywhere from 80-150 pounds. Christensen says they take between three and eight hours to design and carve. Although some artists will spend up to 30 hours on ambitious designs.

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There are more than 5,000 pumpkins at the 2023 Minnesota Zoo Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

“Our artists are paid per pumpkin so it doesn't make sense financially to do that,” Christensen says. “But there's also the component of: Artists are very passionate about the work that they're producing, so they want to create the best thing that they can.”

This year the theme is wildlife.

“We have fish. We have groundhogs, we have white-tailed deer, ravens, toads, bats. We have a lot of bears,” Christensen says.

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Many artists work full-time hours from September to early November creating pumpkin art.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Artists are also going off-script. There are hot dogs and cityscapes, rollerbladers and cars stuck in the snow, and scenes of Split Rock Lighthouse and the Boundary Waters. Christensen himself did a portrait of Prince.

“We do have Prince on deck waiting to go out here as a celebration of just Minnesota in general,” he says.

Artist Susannah Belbas is working on the hotdog pumpkin, or more specifically, a hotdog chef grilling hot dogs. She also did an ice fisher with a pumpkin head. Belbas compares the medium to woodblock prints.

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“You spend a lot of time on something and it's in the compost a week later. It’s kind of part of the beauty of it,” Christensen says.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

“It’s like making a really intense Lite-Brite,” Belbas says. “It just feels kind of magical in a way that a lot of other art doesn't. It feels alive.”

This is her third year carving pumpkins at the zoo. She says it’s a community.

“Many of the people that are here are people that I hang out with outside of pumpkins,” she says. “There's also people that I don't get to see all year that show up during pumpkins. So it's like a little reunion.” 

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"Artists are very passionate about the work that they're producing, so they want to create the best thing that they can," Christensen says.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

The pumpkins only last three to seven days on the trail. They are at the mercy of the elements and the appetites of critters. Christensen goes out every night to spot pumpkins that need to be replaced. Some go into the compost and others are given to the zoo animals.

“You spend a lot of time on something and it's in the compost a week later. It’s kind of part of the beauty of it,” he says. “Even pictures don't do these justice because the colors are so vibrant. It's really astounding what is out on the trail at night.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.