Alex Wer just wanted to be the cool guy on the block. Now the Elk Grove insurance agent has carved out a worldwide niche with his pumpkin art.
Wer started practicing his craft on artificial pumpkins about six years ago, and since then, he has custom-carved about 500 fake gourds with intricate layered designs of movie, TV and comic book characters, business logos and musicians.
He calls himself the Pumpkin Geek the name of both his business and website.
Some people ask Wer to memorialize their kids' or friends' images on a pumpkin.
A self-professed nerd, Wer has developed a cult-like fan base, especially among sci-fi, horror and comic book aficionados, and has shipped his creations to at least nine different countries.
Pop-culture icons have thrown their support to Wer, including "Star Trek" TV stars, Hollywood bloggers and even rock musician Gene Simmons. Wer has thousands of Twitter followers, has been written up in blogs worldwide and has shown off his art at national conventions.
"Good Morning America" producers ordered pumpkins carved with the faces of the show's anchors, which Wer hopes will be displayed on the set on Halloween, giving him mainstream national exposure.
The Pumpkin Geek started innocently enough. With no formal art training and no prior experience in carving, Wer got hooked on the Halloween tradition for fun.
"I just wanted to be the cool neighbor," he explained.
Fifteen years ago, he started carving real pumpkins with kids for Halloween. "Then, I learned how to do shading, and I became a little obsessed. I would carve about seven pumpkins for Halloween, but they would die within a week."
The turning point came six years ago when his wife, Rebecca, asked him to carve a pumpkin for her office open house. Wer hit upon the idea of using polyurethane pumpkins from craft stores instead of the real squashes, and etched the company's business logo in one.
"It was literally three stick figures dancing in a circle, but because it was carved into this everlasting surface, people got excited," he recalled. That night, he got 35 orders for pumpkins, some customers asking for business logos, or movie characters, such as Spider-Man, or pictures of their children.
Popular subjects these days include "Star Wars," "Star Trek," Harry Potter, vampires, Indiana Jones, comic book characters and "Lord of the Rings."
His website features photos of celebrities with their pumpkins, including Jeri Ryan, a star of TV's "Star Trek Voyager" and "Body of Proof," and Joe Mantegna of "Criminal Minds." Wer also has done corporate jobs.
He charges $125 to $195 per pumpkin, depending on the work involved.
Wer finds images online, or customers send him images they want etched on a pumpkin. He manipulates the image with a software program and, with a little bit of secretive artistry, transfers the design onto the rind of the fake pumpkin.
He uses a hand-held rotary drill with different bits to chisel five layers of detail and shading. He adds an electrical light and cord, so the pumpkin is ready to be plugged in.
Wer, a 45-year-old father of two, said his business heats up in October, but he carves and delivers all year, filling orders for Christmas and birthday gifts and special occasions. His customers say they display his work year-round.
"It's not a Halloween item anymore," he said. "People see it as a piece of art they're proud to showcase."
Rachel Radschlag of Hubertus, Wis., found Wer on Twitter, ordered a pumpkin with the image of a couple's engagement picture, and gave it to them last week as a wedding gift. The groom had proposed last October by carving "Will you marry me?" in a pumpkin.
"It was insane how perfect it was, amazing how close to the picture it was," Radschlag said of Wer's work. "The bride was in tears when she saw it."