October 18, 2015

Photo Essay: Wayward Carousel Horses & Other Creatures

The more I think I'm alone in the world, the more I find people who like the same things I do—and sometimes, way more than I do.

I've been fascinated with antique carousels for a while—at least since Carousel Mall opened in Syracuse while I was in high school. But even when I took a road trip to Newport and Providence, Rhode Island with my sister back in 2002, the only tourist stop I insisted on visiting was the 1895 Looff carousel in Crescent Park.

As I was researching places to ride carousels in California, I came across Running Horse Studio in Irwindale (also home of the Sriracha factory), where there are antique carousels in storage and available for rent, and antique carousel horses being restored as we speak.

Studio owner Lourinda Bray specializes in repainting vintage carousel animals... return them back to their factory original condition.

Some of the horses come to her in pretty rough shape.

As they are stripped of their layers of paint—sometimes as much as a quarter inch think—any original paint chips are recorded and catalogued for research. Sometimes intricate carvings are revealed, once those pounds of lead paint are removed.

A layer of white primer paint is then applied to the horses before the body coat, trapping colors, and metal leafing can be applied.

But the horses—which are typically made of balsa wood and are hollow—aren't always in such good shape.

Sometimes, by the time they arrive at Running Horse Studio, they have survived storms, fire, abuse, and improper storage.

But Lourinda says that she could restore a carousel horse even if it arrived to her as a bag of wood bones.

And that happens. She has an entire shelf dedicated to spare legs.

Some of the horses have tails carved out of wood that need to be stripped and repainted...

...but many of them have tails made of real horse hair, which is difficult to restore and often must be replaced.

Lourinda is primarily a collector. Unlike a dealer, she acquires the animals without intent to resell them.

She restores them to keep them.

And that means her studio is chuck cram full of carousel animals and parts.

While its floor is occupied by the animals, the walls are covered in antique panels, sideboards ("ranks") of benches and chariots, and other painted and wood-carved trimmings.

While the prancers are jumpers are often seen as fanciful...

...gentle beasts...

...posing for photos...

...and flirting with the crowds...

...many of them are armored, ready for battle.

In fact, the earliest beginnings of carousels—before mechanization and hydraulics—wasn't as an amusement, but as a way to train jousting knights to fight atop a running horse.

Today, their ribbons and sashes and banners don't exactly evoke the military...

...but if you look closely, you might see one of their saddles made out of a fierce wild animals. No longer for the cavalry, grabbing the ring became a game for the commoners.

The horses do not merely bluster and blow and nicker and sigh...

...but also neigh and whinny.

Some of them are downright terrifying, their nostrils flaring, veins popping.

A visit to Running Horse Studio feels like a hunt for treasures like lolling tongues...

...and non-horse "menagerie" animals that have also graced a carousel or two... an emu...

...or a pig...

...or a rooster.

Among the feathers, there are also scales—those of sea horses, dragons, and other mythical creatures...

...some falling in the category of the "grotesque."

You can find severed heads...

...and creepy relics from carousel culture that remind you how disturbing childhood can really be.

Running Horse Studio's collection is both unique and historically significant. It contains one of three known standing Allan Herschell horses, circa 1921, and a centaur carved by the Orton Spooner Company in England as a tribute to the officers in the Boer War. Lourinda even acquired the mechanism and some horses from the carousel at Santa's Village in Skyforest.

I still can't quite believe I was there. I still can't quite believe what I saw.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Faces of The Santa Monica Pier Carousel
This 40 Year-Old Princess Has Found Her Kingdom
Photo Essay: The Dead Mall of the Carousel

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