Carved pumpkins offer a rare treat | October 24, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 24, 2007

Carved pumpkins offer a rare treat

Stanford art professor encourages students to be inventive at Halloween

by Sue Dremann

On Halloween night, the pumpkins glow eerily in Matt Kahn's yard. Their carved visages flicker silently along the pathway and lawn leading to the front door, the same as they have for nearly 50 years.

There have been hundreds of them. Meet the goddess Venus -- her voluptuous figure dancing against the black curtain of night -- and a fully formed fetus, bobbing in a fluid of orange light. Polynesian tiki gods have scowled and glared, and the grins of Cheshire-cat jack-o'-lanterns have been suspended in the air.

There hasn't been a three-triangles-and-a-toothy grin Jack among them, and that's the way Kahn likes it.

"Predictability is the enemy," Kahn, a design professor in Stanford's art and art history department, said.

Kahn has hosted a Halloween-pumpkin-carving contest and exhibition for his students at his Stanford campus home every year since the early 1960s. It's when students in his basic-design class get away from the rigors of academia and enter into a world of imagination and fantasy, he said.

"I realized, what an opportunity Halloween is to give education the value of dealing with tradition in an original way," he added.

On Halloween Eve, the students gather in the art department, carvers in hand, to engage in mischief. The only requirement is to stay within the original concept of the pumpkin as lantern. Beyond that, "it's a one-night stand of inventiveness," he said.

Designers create objects that are both utilitarian and environmental, but the object lesson on Halloween Eve is to design something useful and make it compelling, according to Kahn.

Through the years, the project of spontaneous mischief has become a tradition in itself, with alumni, graduate students and Kahn's family joining in.

The carved jack-o'-lanterns arrive at Kahn's house on Halloween, arranged on the lawn, pathways and tables throughout the yard. Hundreds of students, neighbors, children and friends flock to see the annual display. It's always filled with surprises, participants said.

"It's a thrill to see what they come up with," said John Edmark, an art -department lecturer who has been involved with the project for seven years.

"There are no prizes -- just fame and glory."

Edmark's class often joins Kahn's in the contest.

"The stipulation to students is to recognize that they are lanterns, but they should say 'boo' metaphorically," he said.

The young trick-or-treaters are "the most severely critical clients they will ever have," Kahn has told his students.

"The great thing is the kids are totally honest. Watching their eyes light up, their faces say more than any words. Most have never seen anything beyond three triangles and a toothy grin," Edmark said.

Neighbor Mary Kaiser said she doesn't mind the hubbub the annual even creates. The display is worth the one evening of inconvenience.

She recalled that in former days, neighborhood trick-or-treaters could come into the Kahn home and have a treat and perhaps gather in the living room to watch a mystery show on television.

These days, Kahn hires a security guard in case some visitors decide "to take the old Halloween trickery of theft to an extreme," he said.

"The traffic has been overwhelming, but I don't mind that," Kaiser said. She used to worry about children in masks dashing out in the traffic, but it isn't as it was in the old days, with children going out on their own. Now, parents accompany their children anyway, she added.

"We apologized to the neighbors. We get so many trick-or-treaters. They always say 'Oh, Matt, it's a wonderful thing,' so nobody's mad at me," Kahn said.

"It's Matt's show. We support him in his teaching and design class. The children and the adults can come and get all kinds of ideas for design," Kaiser said.

"It's an amazing display of creativity. There are very unusual carvings. It's more like an art show than a pumpkin festival," neighbor Alice Gardener said.

"There is a gathering of neighborhood people, many coming back for years and years. It's one of the few times when you'll see the neighbors."

Gardener said the pumpkin that stands out in her memory was a big one with a smaller one floating inside of it. The interior pumpkin had lights inside that illuminated the whole lantern. "They are very out-of-the-box designs," she said.

Kaiser said she likes the excitement the pumpkin contest brings to the neighborhood. But some of her favorite sights have been the pumpkins the Kahn family -- all artists -- would carve, she said.

"Their magnificent, big pumpkins were right before the entrance in the front," she said. "It's an exciting, beautiful time."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at


Posted by victoria kensington, a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 31, 2007 at 10:16 am

does anyone know where his house is? i would like to visit it this evening.

Posted by Laura Parker, a resident of Portola Valley
on Oct 31, 2007 at 3:39 pm

It's on Santa Fe Road in Stanford off of Mayfield Road.

Posted by Sanford Forte, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 1, 2007 at 9:32 am

I was there last evening; I hope the Weekly's photographer had a chance to see the work. It was an astounding collection of Halloween pumpkin art.

One thing that I found interesting was the constant side-chatter from various artists and art students, commenting on the various designs from a technical point of view - including pretty sophisticated renderings about the aesthetics of pumpkin carving. I overheard comments about how deep one should carve the interior pith to garner certain effects, to how certain angles on the various geometric designs were optimal in rendering shadowy effects.

My favorite was a pumpkin that had most of the interior pith removed, except in places where the untouched thickness of the pith rendered an image of a face when lit up by the pumpkin's interior candle. What captivated me (and others, it was a big favorite) about that pumpkin was that one could not see the face in daylight, as the image it projected could only be seen in the evening, lit by an interior candle, because the "face image" was entirely dependent on the depth of the interior pith - there was no carving on this pumpkin. I tried to take a picture, but my flash neutralized the interior light from the candle, and the face disappeared!

What a truly a great example of "art in the everyday!

Wonderful! Thank you, Matt!!

Posted by Laurie, a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2007 at 5:05 pm

Thank you to the kind Stanford resident who helped me find the house. Directions were perfect. Found the path. Artwork was great.