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Carefree secures renowned sculptor Ray Villafane for full-time Carefree Desert Gardens work


Tara Alatorre

CAREFREE – The town of Carefree has struck a deal with world-renowned sculptor Ray Villafane, making him the full-time sculptor in residence at the Carefree Desert Gardens for 2016, securing not only an expanded “Enchanted Pumpkin Garden” display, but several other sculpture installments this year.

The town council committed $150,000 over the next year to Ray Villafane; in exchange, he will host workshops and install several sculpting projects at the Carefree Gardens in different materials, including bronze and sand. Villafane will also be expanding his pumpkin carving display to include projection animation, more scenes, and sculpted scarecrows this year.

“I love the idea of having my own playground,” Villafane said at the council meeting on Feb. 2. “My wife still won’t let me have sand in the house, so if you build me a sandbox I can guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth.”

Ray Villafane, who is considered the Michelangelo of pumpkin sculpting, has been featured on Food Network, the Travel Channel, Martha Stewart, and worked as an artist for Marvel, and he will now be relocating to Carefree to start working in his new sculpting playground in the Carefree Desert Gardens. 

“This garden has the ability to be world renowned,” Villafane said. “There is a lot of potential here, and I am excited to be a part of its growth.”

Last year, Villafane’s pumpkin carving display took place over two weeks during the Halloween season in the Carefree Desert Gardens, bringing in huge crowds and national media attention with it. Some shops reported being 25 percent busier than the previous October, and the town’s Facebook page activity was up almost 50 percent, bringing in a projected publicity value of $80,000 for Carefree, according to Gina Kaegi, the town marketing director.

“It is one of the best things Carefree has done,” said Kaegi at the Feb. 2 council meeting. “You took a gamble and it paid off.”

Kaegi estimates that the town could pay about 50 percent of its costs of the Enchanted Pumpkin Garden through corporate sponsors and ticket sales, offsetting the costs.

The Carefree Town Council unanimously agreed to pay Villafane $37,500 by the end of February for a deposit that would come out of the marketing budget, and would act as the first installment of the full $150,000. However, that was under the stipulation that Villafane and Kaegi draft a marketing plan in the next two months giving more details that guarantees specific dates and events. The remaining balance of $112,500 will have to be paid in installation payments throughout the year, and allotted into the next budget by the town council at a later date.

Mayor Les Peterson and the other council members were eager to continue their relationship with Villafane, recognizing the unique marketing opportunity it brings for the town. 

“The town people have embraced you like I have never seen before,” said Mayor Peterson. “As much as you liked and warmed to them, they did the same to you. They would come back to see you and your art.”