Carousel Works

Artists: Don Blakley, Tim Gorka, Marilyn Ritchie

In a warehouse complex in a semi-industrial area of Mansfield is tucked a workshop where craftspeople collaborate to design and build carousels that can be found around the globe, from downtown Mansfield itself to literally floating around the world on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. Established in 1986, Carousel Works might seem young in comparison to the long history of music and artistic traditions throughout Ohio. Yet the tradition of mechanized carousels with hand-carved wooden figures dates to mid to late 19th century Europe at which point the structures and their creators made their way to the United States. In the U.S. such businesses and craftspeople actively produced carousels with carved wooden animals and chariots into the 20th century. Those companies died out around the time of the Great Depression. Carousel Works took up where those workshops left off and has built on the artistic tradition.

The owners, Art Ritchie and Dan Jones, had an interest in antique carousels and were aware that others were nostalgic for these beautiful amusement park rides. Both were captivated by the history and craftsmanship apparent in these figures and determined that they wanted to reinvigorate the tradition of building carousels with hand-carved figures. Their vision has grown into a workshop filled with almost thirty employees, the world’s largest manufacturer of wooden carousels.

The basic idea of each carousel is the same: a collection of carved wooden figures revolves in a circular path, each individual figure moving as the platform rotates. As Carousel Works’ business has grown, the traditional concept remains, yet the creativity with which the workshop and its clients approach the projects has expanded. The traditional carousel with horses is still popular with both riders and, of course, those contracting with the company to have carousels built. The designers and craftspeople are open to innovation, from something as simple as the style of the horse or features on its saddle to the development of a unique carousel such as the Bronx Zoo Carousel, populated with only insect figures.

Creation of the figures takes place in two main departments, on different sides of the workshop: carving and painting (the “art department”). Each area has its own atmosphere, created by the artists working in it. Those areas have several common features, though. Regardless of side, painting or carving, the artists take pride in their work as a team, acknowledging individual strengths and frequently mentioning how they learn from each other. When discussing the work they do, they refer to how one of their team members taught everyone how to paint a certain type of finish, or how one person’s carving style suits a particular style of horse. Regardless, all of the workers talk about how the workshop requires an atypical artist, someone who is willing to learn, willing to listen to others’ suggestions and willing to, sometimes, squelch the individual drive to paint or carve a figure “my way.” Though attention to detail and skill is of utmost importance to these craftspeople, the way a carousel-rider interacts with the figure doesn’t require that an elephant’s saddle design look like a masterpiece in and of itself. A rider will look at it, perhaps even be drawn to the elephant because of it, but the painting should not—and cannot, within the constraints of an artists’ workshop with contractual, economic deadlines—absorb that much of an individual’s attention and time.

In contrast to this approach, carousel carvers of the past were known to have distinct styles of carving, with the masters sometimes carving the heads and leaving the journeyman carvers to deal with the animals’ bodies. As part of their training and their immersion in the woodcarving craft, the carvers at Carousel Works have studied those styles through photographs and have had the rare opportunity to study the work of some carvers up close in the restoration area of the warehouse workshop. At Carousel Works, though, unlike the process in some of the traditional carousel factories in the 19th and 20th centuries, a single carver usually completes an entire figure. A template is created for the body (a common template may be used for basic shapes, even when the animal figures are designed with unique characteristics). A carving machine roughs out the shapes, based on templates created by individual crafts people. Once the shape is roughed out and pieces glued together and doweled, the figure is sanded and then is ready to be carved. The carving design is done on the figure. Artists may draw general concepts for the figure’s detailing but then adapt the image once they are actually carving the figure. The same general style head, for example, can be detailed to show a figure’s gender and attitude. It is in this phase that an individual carver’s skill and style come into play.

Don Blakley, the head carver, describes himself as the first apprentice, of sorts. He has an art background, and planned to attend college at Pittsburgh School of the Arts. However, while still in high school, he began sweeping floors at the workshop and soon was being taught to carve, a skill he has developed and refined over his twenty years at Carousel Works. Tim Gorka is a self-taught woodcarver who dropped out of high school “determined I wanted to make a living with my hands.” Despite his twenty-seven years of making a living doing specialty woodwork and woodcarving, he came to the shop as a rookie of sorts, other than knowing how to handle some of the tools. Because he is self-taught, he understood how to jump in and observe to learn carving techniques. Still, Blakley and the others had to teach him techniques particular to carving the carousel figures. Both think of themselves as artists or craftspeople who take pride in their work. At the same time, they believe that, as Gorka says, “It’s a factory, really, even though you’re surrounded by art pieces.” Blakley thinks the balance that the workshop is able to make between profitability and art, especially with close to thirty employees, is a true mark of their success. Outside Carousel Works, Gorka actively pursues and supports the arts with the Mansfield Art Center, a position which causes him to wonder whether the figures constitute art. Ultimately, he sees each artist has room for creative input. “The envelope gets pushed here, too.”

The team in the paint (art) department is likely to agree with Tim Gorka’s assessment that despite the restrictions in the shapes of their “canvas,” their work allows them the opportunity to be creative and to experiment with design and color. With the exception of a line or style of figures that features a painting approach that reveals the grain of the wood, each figure receives a “color bath,” applied by the art department head, Marilyn Ritchie, that establishes the body color. Once the figure’s base color is established, there is plenty of space on blankets and saddles, and in small detail spots for other members of the department to create “artwork.” Representations of an animal’s natural habitat or, in the case of baby animals, of the adult version of the animal, may appear on a blanket. These discrete “canvases” are open for the painter’s individual touch. The figure may require research to create an accurate representation of a certain type of animal. The komodo dragon on the Akron zoo’s carousel is painted specific to the variation housed at that zoo. In this respect, the work of creating and designing figures is made new by zoos designing their own carousels. When zoos request certain animals be included as a way to educate the patrons, the traditional carousel is innovated upon.

In managing the art department, Marilyn Ritchie remains aware that the painters are artists in their own right and are interested in painting panoramas and details they can take pride in. She allows them some leeway in these areas. Still, she knows that Carousel Works is a manufacturing plant and a place for craftsmanship, not a venue for a fine artist who needs all the time in the world to create a masterpiece on each figure. Two of the experienced figure painters, Mark and Karen, come from different backgrounds yet work on similar tasks, learning from each other and learning from Ritchie and the other members of the department. Being “eclectic artistically” Mark has had “a deep introduction to painting” in the department. Karen’s training and work as an interior designer provides a broad experiential background, though she claims a special interest: “I love detail work. I love detail work.” As with the carving department, usually one person paints a figure start to finish, though not always if deadlines are approaching. All the work, whether a base color or detail, revolves around color. Ask several different people to match a particular color swatch and they all can create it, just with a different formula. This ability to find an individual path to the same outcome is part of what makes the group so productive as a team, sharing their individual methods to reach a collaborative goal.

The carvers joke that the work they perform creates the figures and the paint department merely adds some finishing touches. The painters claim to “take what carvers do and enhance it with color.” Yet the carvers agree that the work of the painters sometimes brings life to an ordinary-looking figure they sent over to be painted. The painters acknowledge the carvers create the three-dimensional canvas which they color and decorate. Not surprisingly, Don Blakley tells of a time recently when the carvers were shorthanded. A relative newcomer to the art department was sent on loan to carving, mostly to do some clean up, “no skill necessary” work. He showed some aptitude with the wood, and it seems he now might be an un-official apprentice in the carving department. This environment of this traditional workshop creates opportunities for the craftspeople to learn from each other, to regularly share their expertise and build a community of artists that reaches from one side to the other of the workspace.

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