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Dog & Pony Show

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.
“Upon close inspection, ‘Sally,’ like most carousel animals, is really a box with rounded-off corners,” Racer continues. “The trick is to carve an animal simply, but to render it with flourishes that give the figure animation and fluidity.” Racer included a poignant detail in the carving that is not readily apparent to the unschooled eye: “There’s a vessel in the torso of the animal that can hold the real Sally’s ashes,” he notes somberly.

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.

Evelyn C. White is editor of The Black Women's Health Book and author of the biography Alice Walker: A Life. Her work also appears in Smithsonian, Ms., Essence and others.

Photograph by Mark Compton

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