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Lesley Bannatyne | CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

Talking with Rot of pumpkinrot "What's Brewing" blog

2011: An interview with Rot himself, talking about his blog (6000 entries since 2003 and growing!), his approach to art and his love for Halloween.

scarecrow

“If my life depended on it, I don’t think I’d be able to create something that wasn’t in some way related to Halloween.”—Rot

Your blog, “What’s Brewing” is such an evocative site. The images, stories, poems, and music that you showcase on it are always so unique. Where do you go to find material for your blog? When you’re trolling the world for images or ideas, music or text, are there specific things that call to you?

ROT: My blog was initially a way for me to give hints or progress photos of the Halloween props I was building. I’d update it with teaser videos of scarecrows-to-be or with small previews of the upcoming Haunt theme for my annual display. It was a creative outlet and a way to pass the time between the long months stretching from one Halloween to the next.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with a need to see Halloween imagery, and I knew a few websites of fellow Haunters which I frequented, and wanted to share them with anyone who stumbled upon my blog. So I featured the ones I knew, and began hunting for other Haunters. The online Halloween community is a close-knit bunch of enthusiasts and Halloween forums were the first place I looked to find unique props and Haunts being discussed or showcased. Googling helped me find more obscure Haunters – people who were either unfamiliar with the presence of Halloween forums or were maybe just not that social (like me). I’d find their websites or web photo albums and pluck a few of my favorite images and feature them on my blog. I look for displays with original layouts and design, or a fresh take on Old School Halloween charm – I try to imagine what I’d feel if I was trick-or-treating and came upon that Haunt.

Eventually my interest in certain artists, poets, musicians, and vendors helped me fill in the spaces between the Haunters I featured. Flickr.com, Halloweenforum.com, Youtube.com, Dreadcentral.com, Etsy.com, Ray Bradbury, and the world of online bloggers have given me a bottomless pit of images, music, videos, products, text, and Haunt material. My blog has over 5,000 entries. When I started out, I never thought there would be so much Halloween-related material or so many Halloween-loving folks out there to keep it going for so long.

There’s a very strong aesthetic at work at the objects you create as well as those you post on your blog. It’s eerie, beautiful, and usually very creepy. Can you talk a bit about how your own personal aesthetic was shaped? And do you have an art or photography or even theater background or did you come to this as an amateur (in the real sense of the word: one who loves).

Amateur, all the way. I don’t have any background in art, photography, or theater. I grew up in a home environment that discouraged things like getting an art degree. It was seen as a risky waste of time and a great way of sabotaging a stable career. I think my parents tried to satiate those desires by having a huge supply of paper around at all times, so I managed to draw and crayon constantly. I think they were hoping I’d grow out of it. The drawings were rarely normal. Always a monster carrying a human head in its hand. Or headless people. Or bloody eyeballs with tiny red tendrils. Or squids, ghosts, witches, and vampires.

I remember watching an episode of ZOOM when I was in grade school. They were demonstrating papier mache using newspaper strips dipped in water and flour. And something sorta clicked. So I experimented with it and changed the formula to Elmer’s glue and water and loved the technique. It turned into a nice little hobby, and a perfect way to satisfy my urges to make monsters. And it was also a way to make my favorite holiday even neater. As my love for Halloween grew, I think my style became more and more related to the holiday, and eventually completely tied to it. If my life depended on it, I don’t think I’d be able to create something that wasn’t in some way related to Halloween.

So much of what you create looks as if it’s been inspired by a close relationship with the natural world and how it changes, decays, and grows. I know you loved being outdoors when you were younger and spending a lot of time in the suburban woods—is that something that continued as an adult? To what extent do you look to the natural world for your ideas?

I think Halloween is all about natural elements. My approach to a prop usually starts with that in mind. I want it to be something that would look at home in an organic setting. Like it was part of the environment. Or something that’s not indigenous, but has been in a natural setting so long that it’s been corrupted by it. I think that’s why I love building scarecrows so much – they really have to be completely natural and organic.

A huge chunk of my youth was spent outdoors in the thin strips of wooded areas near my family’s suburban house. Overturning logs and huge rocks to see what was under there. Creek-walking for hours every day in the summer. And going absolutely insane in the autumn trying to take it all in. I spend a lot of time observing nature, but never in the ways I did back then. My wife and I will go for long walks in a state park nearby (a location we use often for prop photo shoots). Or we’ll canoe and try to get as close as we can to the mushy swampy areas around a lake. I’m constantly pointing to twisted vines or gnarled branches and commenting on how I could use them in a prop. I think I try to see the natural world as a giant dark backdrop for vile creatures, with a lot of big open spaces for distant lonely scarecrows.

Your scarecrows are so impressionistic and have such strong personas. Can you talk about how you think of them? How you get an idea for one, say, and how it takes shape once you start working on it?

I’ve often joked with my wife that I wish I could quit my job and build scarecrows all day long. I think my subconscious is always processing different forms of them, so the ideas are always there. When I decide to build one I start to work with a combination of concepts. I never plan or sketch the design before I start building. I’ll have an idea in my head and I’ll try to let it develop on its own before I pick up any materials. When I’m ready, I always start with the shoulders and chest, since those are built around the support structure that plops down over the scarecrow’s wooden post. Once that’s in place, I start to feel the design out – the height, the arm width, the color. Lots of time is spent standing in front of that empty weird mass imagining mache and branches and fabric staring down at me. One year I recall being obsessed with finding a hornet nest to use as a scarecrow’s head. Completely obsessed. I drove around for a couple of weeks looking up into the trees for old abandoned nests. I even looked online and there were actually people selling them (way overpriced), but I opted to go a different route. And I sorta regret it now. I should have followed that voice.

Is your Halloween work a year-round activity or do you have periods where you work crazy hours? I’m always amazed at what people can do. (For example, there’s a postal deliverer in Oxford Ma who takes his 3 weeks of vacation each year in October so he can—with help—carve and display the 5000+ pumpkins that make up his Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular). How do you manage to do what you do?

My pieces are created throughout the year, using the last couple of months before Halloween as a time to tie up loose ends and finish with the details. I’ll usually take the week of Halloween off from work so I can truly savor the High Holiday. My wife and I really live Halloween every day of the year. It’s in our blood. It’s what we talk about when we’re out doing yard work or sitting around on a Saturday morning drinking coffee. So making time to build my props has never really been a problem. I truly love it and I think I truly need it to remain sane. If a person is truly passionate about something, if it’s really what they should be doing, they’ll find the time to do it.

I understand that you’d like to remain a bit anonymous but are there any biographical details that you’re willing to share?

I’m not a very social person. I don’t even have a facebook page. I think my site and my blog and my work are really what I’m all about. The music I feature, the text, the images – all things that are a part of my life. Things that make me happy. And the corpses, the witches, the pumpkin-headed creatures, and the old dusty scarecrows that I make are all a part of my brain, and my personality.

And lastly, if you’re willing, a few thoughts about Halloween: Why do you think it is that so many more people are home haunters now than even ten years ago? What makes Halloween a mild, or not so mild, obsession for many people?

I’m going to blame the Internet for that one. When I was building my Haunt each year after retiring from trick-or-treating back in the 80s and 90s, I felt like I was the only guy in the world who had a yard display. I had no way of knowing what was going on out there, what people were building, how they were lighting their graveyard, or how they were constructing their props. The Internet didn’t exist. And I’m pretty sure there weren’t any books on the topic of Yard Haunting (though I never even thought to look it up). So we all existed out there, unaware of each other. Doing our own little Halloween thing.

Back in 2002, I learned how to build a website and put one together so I could have a photo album of my Haunt online, so I could send the link to coworkers and my family, rather than an email with a pile of images attached to annoy them. I opened my email one day and found three emails from some people who had seen my work on my site. Pumpkinrot.com had been posted on a Halloween Mailing List (I guess that was the early version of a web forum). I didn’t even have contact information on my site at the time so I’m assuming they took a chance and emailed different email extensions with the name “pumpkinrot.”

I quickly learned there was a whole bunch of Halloween folks out there, connected by the Internet and sharing their photos, designs, and methods - motivating each other with super positive encouragement and a warm sense of community. I think someone who loves Halloween and has always been one to go overboard with decorations will eventually end up online hunting for more decorations or ideas. They’ll stumble upon a forum and discover a mountain of tutorials discussing lighting techniques and foam tombstones and flying crank ghosts and fog machines and papier mache zombies. With knowledge and encouragement and motivation, they’ll decide to branch off into an entirely new direction of Halloween decorating – the homemade prop.

And the obsession will grow.

 

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