Billy Al Bengston is of that rare breed: a successful contemporary artist who has won critical acclaim. Lean, agreeable and gregarious, he divides his time between Hawaii and a light, spacious studio-gallery in Venice. He keeps regular hours, likes working with his hands and, for short trips around town, rides an 18-speed mountain bike.
At 51, Bengston eschews his former reputation as a surfer, motorcyclist and general hell-raiser: "I'm not into those things anymore. Basically, I'm just an old guy who's a working artist who's staying alive for the time being." His next show is in Houston in December. His paintings range in price from $4,000 for one 2 x 2 feet to $25,000 for one measuring 7 x 16 feet.
Bengston says he didn't know what he was getting into when he agreed to carve a Halloween pumpkin for this magazine. "The photographer showed up with 10 huge pumpkins. One was this wonderful white (Russian, available through the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market) and another was pink and white. The biggest one must have weighed 70 pounds. The walls were three inches thick, and the guts and seeds were so heavy that we couldn't move the garbage can.
"I didn't want to do your everyday Friday-the-13th or jack-o'-lantern sort of thing. My concept was the solar system. I'm fascinated by the moon. The blue pumpkin (pictured on the cover), I guess, was my answer to Van Gogh's 'Starry Night.' I used a drill to make the holes, and I cut the outhouse moon in the side with my long-bladed X-Acto knife. I was going to use my sabre saw, but that was in Hawaii. Cutting pumpkins is not as easy as you'd think. The textures vary from real soft to hard. We had pieces flying everywhere. But it turned out OK. We put a strobe inside to take the picture." PUMPKINS COURTESY OF AYERS PUMPKIN PATCH, SANTA PAULA.