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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.
Ed Roth, the distinguished carver of carousels showcased at Disney theme parks, is considered the “dean” of carousel animal carvers. Like Hessey, he demonstrated faith in Racer’s ability to transfer his drawing skills to the crafting of three-dimensional carousel figures. After his serendipitous apprenticeship, Racer dedicated himself to an independent study of animal anatomy. He haunted museums and auction houses in search of the finest antique carousel animals, which he then examined (with orthopedic-surgeon intensity), from head to hoof. Still, Racer says he was “floored” when, during a weekend visit to Roth’s Long Beach studio, the older man handed him a mallet and chisel. “Ed had roughed out an elaborate bear,” Racer recalls, admiringly. “He handed me his tools and gave me the nod to start carving the other side. The gesture showed his confidence in me. It was a great honor.”
Racer has since lent his talents to several major carousel restoration projects that affirm his stature in the industry. In the late 1990s, laboring 60 to 100 hours per animal, he helped to refurbish the $1 million carousel at the San Francisco Zoo. Shortly thereafter, the Carousel Museum in Albany, New York (a $1 million-plus renovation), tapped him to restore a dozen century-old carousel figures (among them horses, donkeys and deer). The figures—each in up to sixty pieces—arrived at his Oakland studio in crates. Racer spent an estimated 120 hours on each animal, a project that he recorded in a series of photographs documenting the restoration process now on permanent display at the museum. He quips: “The Albany animals had to be put back together like a puzzle. So all the puzzles I did in kindergarten didn’t go to waste.”
There was no joking when Racer—his reputation as a self-taught carver steadily rising—was invited to lecture at a prestigious carousel arts conference, held near Pebble Beach, California, in 2002. Paying homage to revered Old World carousel animal carvers such as Salvatore Cernigliaro (“Cherni”) and Daniel Muller, Racer devoted the year prior to the event to the design and carving of a stunning carousel dog. His model? Sally, the rambunctious five-year-old Pit Bull that Racer and Reynolds cherish, along with two other canines, as the “foster dog that never left.”
Using his carver’s palette of more than thirty instruments, Racer crafted the piece christened “Sally” (naturally) out of basswood, in the smaller French style (carousel animals are traditionally carved much larger in the U.S.). He then devised a lustrous-toned color scheme and painted the figure himself. “Historically, there was a separate crew to paint the animals,” he explains.
Racer’s meticulous documentation of his artistic journey with “Sally” (his lecture included thumbnail sketches, scale drawings and the resplendent finished carving) wowed the carousel arts gathering. So bedazzled was Linda Allen, a longtime Seattle collector of carousel horses, that she commissioned him, on the spot, to carve “Nikki,” a full-scale Malamute/Border Collie mix. For 13 years before the dog’s recent death, the real-life Nikki had been the beloved companion of Allen’s adult daughter.
The 18 months Racer dedicated to “Nikki” (commissioned as a holiday gift) is evident in the animal’s elegant lines, visual movement and artful trappings (such as the ornate pumpkins on her saddle blanket). “I am delighted with Tim’s work,” says Allen, adding that her daughter remains “overwhelmed” by the carving, which, adorned with a bright red ribbon, Racer personally delivered to the woman’s Bay Area home on Christmas Eve.
Prominent carousel art collectors like Allen, as well as newcomers to the craft, increasingly seek out Racer’s work. As for prices? Well, Racer carvings can command fees upwards of $10,000. “Of course, a Chihuahua is less expensive than a Great Dane,” he notes.
As he sharpens a chisel, Racer says that he continues to flesh out the anatomy of a whole menagerie of carousel animals he’d like to carve—giraffes, dogs, horses, bears, llamas, lions, deer, ostrich, hippos, tigers, rabbits, even garden snails. “I can draw it, carve it, prime it, and paint it,” he says, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “And if I wreck one of my own carousel carvings, I can restore it.”
Photograph by Mark Compton