Speculative-Inspired Arts: Liza Slaughter Barker

Just in time for October, food artist Liza Slaughter Barker chats with us about creating art with edibles and channeling her inner trick-or-treater to inspire her work.

You work with many different mediums, from pumpkins to cakes and egg shells to clay. Which do you enjoy most?

Artist Liza Slaughter Barker poses with her latest pumpkin carving.
Liza Slaughter Barker with her latest carving.

That is a difficult question. I love sculpting clay because it is something that can be cast and reproduced. I can step away from a clay project and go back to it years later and resume sculpting. That in itself produces a problem because I have several unfinished projects knowing I can go back to it later. However, I enjoy sculpting pumpkins for the opposite reasons. Pumpkins are ephemeral and begin to deteriorate the moment they are cut from the vine. Once I start carving a pumpkin, I must work quickly to animate the big orange autumn vegetable. It won’t wait weeks or even days. It is already in a state of decomposition. Pumpkins force me to work quickly to its finality. And I look forward to pumpkins every year.

How did you get into pumpkin carving?

Well as a child, I did not celebrate any holidays, so carving pumpkins was not a tradition I was familiar with. However, I wanted my kids to experience carving pumpkins in the fall and decorating cookies and trees at Christmas, cakes on birthdays, eggs at Easter, etc. So I set out to carve the best damn pumpkin I could. I looked up pumpkin carvings and found Ray Villafane’s 3D pumpkins and was blown away by how realistic and whimsical they were. That is when I started carving pumpkins in a 3D fashion.

Pumpkin carving is a field that seems to be dominated by men; have you faced challenges in establishing yourself?

My goals in the pumpkin carving world, I would say, are to continue improving my skills and creativity. Right now, all my artwork is a hobby and establishing myself, in my mind, is more about being known for putting out high quality sculpted pumpkins. For the most part, up to now, pumpkin carvers (men and women) are super friendly and incredibly helpful and haven’t been a challenge at all.

What is the most detailed and time-extensive project you’ve completed? And one you are most proud of?

Pumpkin carving
Pumpkin carving by Liza Slaughter Barker.

I had a tallish large pumpkin I sculpted last year that had three female faces of different ages and ethnicities around it. Before sculpting that particular pumpkin, I remember wanting to try my hand at something more relatable to me rather than the typical monsters, men, or male-like figures carved into pumpkins. In this pumpkin sculpt, the older female had an aged hand covering her weathered face. I sculpted each figure so that their hair flowed and connected them. The pumpkin was quite dry but was also very thick, so it was difficult to sculpt. I approached this particular pumpkin in a more artistic and contemplative manner.

From where do you draw inspiration for your designs?

Most of the time, I have a clear idea of what I am wanting to sculpt. Right now I am carving a butternut squash that I will preserve by pickling. It is a crazy stylized clown skull complete with a round nose and clown hair. This was a request from my 3 year old daughter. She loves Halloween. Now, sometimes I don’t know what to sculpt and search for character ideas on the internet or in illustrated books. I look for interesting faces that can be carved into a pumpkin. Sometimes I just start carving with no particular direction and just use my imagination. The best sculpts are planned out and have been inspired by figures with the most emotionally provocative expressions.

Name a fictional character you’d love to sculpt or carve but haven’t yet tackled, and in what medium would you create them?

I am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and have sculpted Gollum in pumpkin before. I would really like to sculpt Bilbo Baggins’ jumpscare scene face. I also am wanting to do a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Pumpkin this year as well.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

With Covid, working full time, and homeschooling, I don’t really have any projects planned. My goals for this year are to stay home as much as possible and sculpt some cool pumpkins this fall. I am turning down any opportunities to travel and compete, so in the meantime I want to sharpen my observation skills and my technique. I really want my sculpts to be diverse in style and content, so my personal projects are to fine tune my artistic skills for better execution in the various mediums.

To see more of Liza’s work, follow her on Instagram at liza_slaughter_barker.