Constable: McHenry artist finds his medium in TV's 'Halloween Wars'
An artist from the get-go, Chris Larsen took a while to find the perfect medium for his creative impulses.
"I was always into drawing," says Larsen, 36, who grew up in Lake Bluff, lives in McHenry and makes his living as the sober-living director for New Directions Addiction Recovery Services in Crystal Lake. "I went to film school at Columbia College. I was a tattoo apprentice briefly. I taught third grade in Waukegan."
"Pumpkins were the only thing that stuck. I've always loved Halloween and saw what people were doing with pumpkins, and decided I'd give that a shot," says Larsen, who uses tools made for sculpting clay, a few knives and a vegetable peeler. "That was the first time I saw someone sculpt a pumpkin. I never even thought that was possible."
Now, Larsen is pushing the boundaries of pumpkin possibilities as the pumpkin-carver on team "Burned at the Cake," competing for $50,000 in prize money on "Halloween Wars," which airs at 8 Sunday on the Food Network with a new episode titled "The Swarm."
Larsen, New York cake-maker Brenda Villacorta, and California sugar artist Julian Perrigo-Jimenez Julian won the spine-chiller challenge on this season's first episode with their elaborate "Trapped in a Nightmare" creation, in which a little girl comes to her mother's bed for comfort and discovers the mom is a demon and a multi-armed monster is reaching for her from under the bed.
"The first hour, I've got to get the giant head done, and the next two hours, I'm working on the tentacles," Larsen remembers. The judges rewarded his work.
"Your cake and pumpkin details were as pristine as they were scary," host Jonathan Bennett told the team.
Larsen spent nearly two weeks in Los Angeles last fall filming the episodes running now. He is sworn to secrecy about his fate but still has a hard time believing he's on the show.
"I'm winning a challenge on the show that inspired me to carve pumpkins," Larsen says, adding that his fiancee Elizabeth Rowader, an artist who paints, urged him to take a shot. "For a few years, friends and family would try to get me to audition, and I never thought I was good enough. But my goal was always to be on that show."
He's busy all October at festivals, where he carves as the Pumpkin Butcher. He's one of the featured carvers in Night of 1,000 Jack-o'-Lanterns, which begins Wednesday at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, and Oct. 25 at Halloween Hoopla in Deerfield. He also does private parties booked through his pumpkinbutcher Facebook and Instagram sites and at firstname.lastname@example.org, with a small pumpkin carving starting at about $200.
"This is pretty insane," says 10-year-old Max Ferrazza of Arlington Heights, as he and his sister, Lizzie, 16, check out Larsen's carving display at last weekend's Autumn Harvest at North School Park in Arlington Heights.
"Whoa! How do you do that?" gushes Anna Schumacher, 9, who stops by Larsen's display with her mother, Karen.
Larsen first learned to etch pumpkins by gently shaving away outer layers so light would shine through his designs. That gave him the confidence to sculpt.
"Pumpkins are completely subtractive. You can only take away. So if you do make a mistake, you need to be clever. You can't just plop more clay on it," Larsen says. "Things like zombies are easy to carve because they are so forgiving. You can make a mistake look like a wound."
By 2014, he had learned the essentials.
"I look for a pumpkin that is heavy for its size and has a thick green stem. I prefer tall pumpkins," Larsen says. "I want to do Halloween stuff, not cute puppies and kittens. I want to do monsters. I've always loved monsters and horror movies."
His arms boast tattoos of movie moments, from an appendage of "Edward Scissorhands" to the flux capacitor time-travel technology from "Back to the Future." Being on a popular TV show gets him recognized at times and makes him nervous.
"I might have less than an hour to do something I'd spend three or hour hours on at home," Larsen says. "There's always drama. It's a high-stress environment with people you don't know. Everyone's got their own ego because we're all artists and have our own ideas on how things should go. One of the keys is learning to work together."
He does that in his professional life working with people trying to end opioid use, alcohol abuse and other addictions. He hosted a viewing party for the first episode of this season's "Halloween Wars" at The Other Side, a sober bar run by New Directions. Art can be therapy.
"When I am carving pumpkins, everything falls away. It's a good Zen thing for a few hours," Larsen says, noting his art has a shelf life of just a few days. "You can pickle it, but that's smelly and gross and expensive. You take a few good pictures. That's the best way to preserve them."
October is his time. "If I could do this 12 months a year, I'd make a killing," Larsen says. He'll miss it when pumpkin season ends.
"Sometimes, in the off-season," Larsen says softly, "I carve potatoes just for practice."