Montana State University

Stu Knapp: Still painting pumpkins after 43 years

October 30, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Stu Knapp started painting pumpkins in 1966 so his sons wouldn't hurt themselves carving with knives. Still painting pumpkins after all these years, he works here on his 2009 creations. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Stu Knapp has done everything you might imagine him doing as a retired administrator and professor at Montana State University, but this time of year he paints pumpkins.

Sometimes working all night, Knapp paints pumpkins that look like they were designed by coastal Indians in the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes in the past, he shredded paper to look like hair, then attached the hair to the top of the painted pumpkin and stuck a hat on top. He used to make eyebrows that looked like bats.

It's a hobby he started 43 years ago when he worried about his two sons carving pumpkins with knives, Knapp said. It's a pastime he continues even though his sons are long grown and Knapp, 81, has Parkinson's disease and recently had a pacemaker placed in his chest.

"I never saw any painted pumpkins. Now there are lots of them," he said.

Calling it "pump art" instead of pop art, Knapp said the Internet displays many photos of painted pumpkins. But he hasn't seen anyone paint them the way he does. Pointing to carvings and paintings around his home, Knapp said he grew up around totem poles and other Northwest Coast Indian artwork. He has seen such artwork in museums from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Smithsonian Institution.

"I have been interested in Northwest coastal Indian art for many years," Knapp said.

Knapp took a few art courses at Oregon State University, but he isn't a professional artist. Knapp was MSU's vice president for academic affairs from 1978-1988, then an MSU parasitology professor from 1988-1996. For six months in 1984, he filled in for MSU President Bill Tietz while Tietz investigated ways to boost the university's involvement in research. Knapp was later asked to serve as Montana's Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs, then interim dean of MSU's College of Agriculture. He was deputy commissioner from 1996 to 1998 and interim dean from 1998-99. Besides those, he was president of the national Lewis and Clark Trails Foundation, Inc.

"In the administrative line of work, one often yearns for a visible, able-to-touch product of your time and effort," said Tietz, Knapp's longtime friend. "With Stu, it is particularly compelling and involves pumpkins.

"He probably uses the pumpkins as others use the piano, the easel and the camera," Tietz added.

Knapp said Northwest Coast Indian art might look simple, but it is deceptively complex. The Indians often used red, black and white paint and incorporated ravens, salmon, bison and frogs into their designs. They made templates out of cedar bark and handed them down through the generations.

Knapp made his templates out of cereal boxes and saves them in plastic bags. He traces around the templates with a marking pen, then fills in the shapes with acrylic paint. He paints some pumpkins black before adding their features. If an eye is crooked or he doesn't like a mouth, he starts over.

"Stu will work all night on a single pumpkin and more, if it demands it," Tietz said. "Each pumpkin is sized and cast as a character before the painting."

Knapp said he normally paints six or seven pumpkins a year, then gives most of them away. His son, Paul, estimates that his father has painted more than 300 over the years.

"They are all spectacular," commented Knapp's other son, Karl.

One fall, Knapp painted several pumpkins and placed them outside his house, only to have them smashed on the street. The next year, a neighbor built him a frame so his pumpkins could be viewed through a window. The frame allowed him to set the pumpkins on top of each other like a totem pole.

This year, Knapp said he wasn't sure if he would paint any pumpkins, but enough people asked that he decided to go ahead.

Tietz drove Knapp to a local grocery store where Knapp picked out three pumpkins that were free of abrasions. (Abrasions make a pumpkin rot faster). Then Tietz drove Knapp home and carried the pumpkins inside. Knapp, an avid reader with a stack of books beside his couch, said he would start painting after he finished reading "Half the Sky" by Nicholas Kristof, an acquaintance of Karl's. Knapp thought he would listen to an audio disc of "The Tipping Point" while painting.

No one in his family -- not his wife, Bev, his sons or his five grandchildren -- has taken up pumpkin painting, Knapp said.

"I don't have either the skill or the patience," Paul wrote by e-mail.

"It's too hard to compete with my dad's work," Karl wrote.

Stu Knapp said, "I have no disciples. I fixed the pumpkins for them. Then I got so carried away, I did them every year."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or