How does one get to be a carver of carousel animals? Even those youngsters who are deft with crayons and paste rarely grow up to be working artists, let alone celebrated craftsmen in wood, jewels and oil paints.
But Tim Racer says that from the age of three, he knew art was his destiny. “I could see that art made people happy,” he says. “Both my parents encouraged my creativity and never mentioned ‘starvation’ when I committed to art as a career.” Racer’s pursuits, actually, are now twofold: A passion for American Pit Bull Terriers as well as his talent for carousel art have brought him respect in two worlds. Incongruous? Not really.
“Both my art and my dog advocacy involve restoration,” says Racer, 41, sipping coffee in his art-filled home as three canine companions frolic nearby. “With Pit Bulls, my mission is to restore a tarnished image. As a carousel animal carver, I’m reclaiming a tradition from the past. It’s amazing how it’s all come together.”
A 1984 graduate of the Detroit Center for Creative Studies whose portfolio boasts illustrations for, among others, Northwest Airlines, Corona Beer and Muppet Books, Racer and his wife Donna Reynolds (also an artist) left the Midwest for northern California in the early 1990s. “We had no jobs, no clients and no contacts,” Racer recalls with a hearty laugh. “But we’d gotten away from the snow.”
The couple soon set up home studios in a pastoral enclave in Oakland and, as lifelong dog aficionados and animal rights advocates, co-founded Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls, or BAD RAP. It was at a local wildlife center that Racer met Pamela Hessey, an internationally acclaimed painter and restorer of carousel horses.
“For many years, carousel horses were looked down upon as kitsch carnival art,” says Hessey, who, impressed with Racer’s portfolio, hired him to help restore the ailing carousel animals arriving at her Bay Area studio with wood-rotted joints, chipped ears and tarnished paint. “Tim immediately grasped the art and craft of the tradition. He well exceeded all of my expectations as an apprentice and went on to establish his own reputation as a carousel animal carver.”
The carousel arts have a long history. Dating back to a Byzantine era (circa AD 500) bas-relief that depicted riders swinging in baskets tied to a pole, modern-day carousels, with their bubbly stream of calliope music, first appeared in the United States in the 1870s. They have since charmed generations of revelers at carnivals, circuses and amusement parks. The hand-hewn machines were lovingly crafted by a wave of immigrants who’d refined their design and carving skills with Old World masters in such countries as Germany, Italy and France. They provided the poetry-in-motion found in “Golden Age” carousels trademarked in America as Dentzel, Illions, Looff, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, C.W. Parker and Herschell-Spillman.
Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence of interest among artisans and collectors in a carousel arts tradition that suffered a steady decline after the Depression years. While vintage carousel horses have historically captured preservationist, collector and popular attention, other carousel animals and artifacts (i.e., rounding boards, chariots and band organs) are now rising to the forefront of demand. Witness the $174,900 recently paid at auction—reputedly the highest price ever bid on carousel art—for “Bruno,” a majestically carved (circa 1905) St. Bernard dog.
Does this conjure nostalgic carousel memories of a graceful pony that you rode merrily as a child for, perhaps 25 cents? Nowadays, a horse with original paint, or a rare sneaky tiger, can fetch $80,000 to $100,000 in the collectors’ market.