Every fall, the Food Network celebrates the almighty pumpkin. Throw in some hay bales and some dried corn stalks and you've got a season's worth of food and fun and a lot of interested viewers. Most of them wish they could do what they see on television.
Like turn homely squash into bona fide art.
If only the temporary kind.
To that end, the country's very best pumpkin carvers – there are only a handful of folks who can claim that status – compete yearly now on the Food Network’s "Outrageous Pumpkins," demonstrating how to make a vegetable into, well, anything they want, be it spooky or silly or significant.
Fairfield's William Wilson is among the most sought after in the field, and he's part of this year's "Outrageous" season, which debuts Sunday, Oct. 3, and features seven pumpkin carvers creating spectacular pumpkin creations for a prize of $25,000. The season includes four episodes, each airing every Sunday of the month at 10 p.m.
Competing on the show was a big deal for Wilson, who isn’t your typical pumpkin carver (if there is any such thing as a typical pumpkin carver). The 46-year-old didn’t start carving seriously until eight years ago and, even now, he only does it part-time. His full-time job is running his restoration company, CRS 1st Response.
He is also one of only a handful of Black carvers in the pumpkin carving community.
As he competed on set – the show was taped last fall – he leaned toward carving cartoons. After all, as a father of five kids, he has watched them on repeat.
He also bore in mind the advice of mentor Jon Michaels: “Be fearless.”
Wilson's always been an artist. He attended Scarlet Oaks in Sharonville as a junior and senior, where he studied culinary arts. There, his instructors introduced him to ice carving and fruit carving and, in a matter of months, Wilson was the youngest ever to compete – and place – at an ice carving competition sponsored by Sysco. He was a natural.
But his artistic promise would be put on hold.
At 18, Wilson became a father. Carving is a fun talent for chefs to know, he explained, but they don’t get hired for it. So Wilson put those dreams aside to work in restaurants to support his family.
Over the next decade or so, Wilson worked his way up the restaurant hierarchy. He married and had more children. He carved fruits and pumpkins now and then on the side, but it was nothing to make a living from.
The mentor shows up
That is, until, one sweltering summer day in 2011, a truck pulled up to the condo across from Wilson’s home in the Pleasant Run neighborhood. Out of the truck strolled Jon Michaels, scruffy but well built, and around 30, he wore a T-shirt touting ice carving.
Michaels was already considered a master carver of ice, trees, and pumpkins. So talented that he would carve trees in Hamilton and ice for the Super Bowl.
Wilson knew immediately he wanted to know this man.
They were different. Michaels, who added an “s” to his birth last name “Michael” to avoid the confusion of having two first names, was all “rock ‘n’ roll.” He loved riding his motorcycle, having a good time and living life unafraid.
Wilson, on the other hand, tended to get into his own head, scrutinizing his art until it was perfect.
The two became best buds.
Then, in the fall of 2013, Michaels asked Wilson to pick up a giant pumpkin left over from a fundraising event at a casino. The pair were going to carve it at a tailgate event before a Bengals-Browns game.
After working a while, Michaels started partying with the tailgaters. But Wilson kept going and – with Michaels away from the pumpkin – he started carving the lettering, something he says he always doubted his ability to do.
A carver was born.
Wilson went home and did his first 3-dimensional face on a pumpkin. He was a new man.
Professional pumpkin carving takes place in the fall, of course, when pumpkins are available to carve. It’s not the most lucrative profession, and there are only about 300 known carvers nationally.
The ones who ‘make it’ are staples in on-air competitions like "Outrageous Pumpkins" and "Halloween Wars." But all the carvers know each other. And they are very exclusive.
So it was clear that Wilson would have to work his way up. But he was used to that in the restaurant industry, he said. Plus, Michaels was there to give him the hand up.
Over ensuing autumns, Wilson “swept shop” for Michaels and his friends, Dean Murray, Titus Arensberg, and Greg Butauski, master carvers themselves. At competitions, Wilson would clean up, and, in return, he learned the craft. That is, what tools to use, how to properly store a pumpkin, how to finish a pumpkin for presentation.
Wilson also got a taste of professional carving. He assisted Michaels in competitions and earned titles for himself. In 2017, Michaels, his carving friends, and Wilson were hired to carve pumpkins for Halloween at the White House. Michaels and Wilson started dreaming of going on shows together and starting their own company.
Despite this success, Wilson was held back by his perfectionism. Michaels would always tell him to stop being afraid. In order to make it big and to compete on these national competition shows, he told him, you need to be fast. You don’t have time to overanalyze your work.
Wilson admits he found that advice hard to follow.
The student steps up
Then the unimaginable happened. Two years ago, at just 36, Michaels died of a heart attack.
There would be no more hangouts in the garage. Or motorcycle rides through the streets. The man his kids called "Uncle" wouldn't be in anyone's life anymore.
“Some people, when they die, they leave a greater hole. He was just so many things to so many people. It was, uh, God, it just really hurt,” Wilson said.
Wilson had contemplated quitting pumpkin carving, but now he returned to the carving table with a new mindset: be fearless.
As the pandemic rolled out and the world effectively shut down, Wilson focused on carving faster and scrutinizing less. He worked on becoming a competitor.
And when Wilson got the call last fall, asking him if he would like to compete on "Outrageous Pumpkins," he was ready.
He says he went there aggressively, creating new concepts on the spot, taking risks, carving fast.
He did it for Jon.
“If anybody watches me carve, I would just want them to say Jon's name just to know that he's the one that got me here,” Wilson said. “He's the one that always had faith in me. He always pushed me. If I could talk to anybody about the experience of being on TV, it would be him.”
Without giving anything away, Wilson is proud of the work that will show up on screen in coming weeks.
“I was like 'If I go, I'm gonna kill it. I was like, 'I'm gonna go for Jon Michaels.' He taught me,” Wilson said. “And I went out there, and I tore it up.”
Now almost a year after the competition took place, Wilson sits in his garage carving a butternut squash. It’s not quite pumpkin season, so he had to improvise. He wants to inject a syringe in a model arm of the squash to encourage people to get vaccinated. It’s still pretty early on in the process, so he’s just playing around with it.
To the left of his workstation is a photo of Michaels, watching Wilson, reminding him to not be afraid.
Wilson starts talking about his carving company, “Wicked Designz,” which he launched this year. Now, he can book his own gigs.
And he's busy.