“If you’re not going to cut all the way through, cut a big hole in the back so the flame can get oxygen,” says the former chemistry major.

With a scene inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender, Shannon Louie (Stern ’22) won our first-ever Halloween pumpkin-carving contest by the popular vote. And it wasn’t close. The post announcing her win on NYU’s Instagram account generated so much interest from our community—including 1,300 shares and a shoutout from Michaela Jill Murphy, the voice actor for the character Toph Beifong in the show—that we felt compelled to learn more about how the prized pumpkin came to be. Just before Thanksgiving (still firmly within gourd season), the NYU News team caught up with Shannon, an MBA candidate with an undergraduate degree in chemistry, who spoke with us from Westchester, New York, where she’s studying remotely this semester.

Shannon Louie

Shannon Louie

Pumpkin with Avatar: The Last Airbender carved into it.

The winning design


Why Avatar: The Last Airbender?
When my brother and I were in high school, we used to rewatch it together—the entire series, beginning to end, no matter how many times we’d seen it before—every summer. It was a great bonding experience for us! And now that it’s been released on Netflix, it’s been having a moment and gaining more popularity, so I thought it was relevant. My other idea was to do the Cinderella carriage, because this was a big anniversary year for Cinderella and I thought it would be funny to do the pumpkin carriage on a pumpkin. But I liked the aesthetics of the Airbender more.

Where did you learn to carve pumpkins so well?!
Growing up I enjoyed theater and music and I played instruments. But when it came to visual art, like drawing and painting, I was awful at it. That’s part of the reason I chose to study chemistry—I thought I just didn't have a lot of creativity. But about 10 years ago we started getting together with my cousins every Halloween to do pumpkin carving. One year I really wanted to challenge myself and try to do something really cool, and I'm a big Harry Potter fan. So my first kind of intricate pumpkin was a dementor with Harry Potter's patronus in the middle of it. That was the first time I ever experimented with carving pumpkins and not cutting all the way through, for more of a glowy effect. And then maybe two years later I did the Maleficent dragon from Sleeping Beauty.

Pumpkin with a dementor and patronus from Harry Potter carved into it.

A dementor with Harry Potter's patronus in the middle of it

Pumpkin with the dragon from Maleficent carved into it.

The Maleficent dragon from 'Sleeping Beauty'

Describe your technique.
The first thing I do when I'm carving a pumpkin is I look at some ideas on the internet. I look at existing stencils and find an image that I like. More often than not, it's not a stencil that was meant for pumpkin carving, but I take that picture and I stare at it for several hours just to see okay, where do I want to cut? Where does it make the most sense to scrape instead of carve all the way through? What's the look that I'm really going for? In this particular case, I actually found an image of the Airbender and then I actually had to go and find another image for the elements in the background. And I ended up superimposing the Aang picture on top of the background.

One thing from experience that I do know is that if you're not going to cut all the way through, cut a big hole in the back so the flame can get oxygen. Otherwise, it doesn't glow as well. That's a chemistry-nerd tip for you.

Did you scream when actress Michaela Jill Murphy commented on our post?
It was amazing. One, that she had actually seen it. And two, that she approved and used a quote from the show to express her approval. I had like a mild panic attack going like, oh my god, this is so exciting. I texted my brother. Honestly, that entire time, from when I realized that it was posted on social media to like maybe two hours later, was just a whirlwind of so many emotions coming at me at the same time.