I’ve loved carousels since I was a child. There’s something about the fantasy, the magical leap into our dreams when perched on the back of a spirited steed with its head tucked in at an elegant angle, mane flowing. Beautiful and free, even in its confined circularity. And this childhood, almost visceral, attraction has stayed with me, a glorious link to imagination and all things whimsical in life.
So when I discovered the existence of the Albany Historic Carousel and Museum, in Albany, Oregon, and learned about their community project to build a new, intricately carved and authentically painted carousel, almost entirely created by local volunteers, I knew I had to go there.
When I walked in the front door of the Albany Carousel Project, in Albany, Oregon I felt like I’d discovered Santa’s workshop in June. Carved animals in various states, some in pieces, some roughly carved, and many shining with fresh coats of glistening paint were perched at various angles throughout the building. Volunteer carvers and painters were at work wherever you looked. Cindy Purkey, who carves here eight hours a week and has been volunteering since the project began ten years ago, was working on a bear whimsically sporting a pair of glasses sponsored, not surprisingly, by a family of optometrists.
I wandered amongst the menagerie—horses, dragons, elephants, a giraffe, a frog, lions, a Greyhound, even a quail, 52 will be the total, plus two chariots. Each animal is individually sponsored, with a personal history and unique design. Some horses are exact duplicates of real horses owned and loved in the past, right down to the flowers braided into the mane. I loved the fact that Prana the Pegasus horse is adorned by three fairies representing the sponsors’ three daughters, and Yun Hsiang the dragon honours the sponsor’s parents in China.
The workshop attracts about 2,500 visitors a month, and includes the small Dentzel American Carousel Museum. It will take another five-six years before the completed carousel will be housed in a new building on this spot. A 15-year project is quite an investment for a community, but so far 200-300 citizens of Albany have happily volunteered, many for years.
One retired engineer spent weeks reassembling the 1909 Dentzel mechanism that operates the carousel and wound up with three mysterious “extra” pieces. He actually flew back east at his own expense to examine the only other similar machine in existence, returned, and reassembled the one in Albany correctly.
Lead carver Jack Giles, a computer specialist who also taught carving at the local college, is there every Saturday and Wednesday eve, and while he rarely gets to carve himself, he oversees the others, in what he calls “carving through somebody else’s hands.” It takes volunteers about two and a half to three years to carve an animal, a year to paint it with many layers, and six months to dry….and then there’s the clear coat. This is an unhurried process, rare in our world.
Many of the volunteers whittled as kids and learned to carve later. This is a place for people to learn, for people to create, for people to dream. There is a comfortable inclusive atmosphere, an “elfishness” that feels warm and productive, a place where art and community come together. One longtime volunteer carver let a blind child carefully use the carving tools, and then, slowly feel the result. If I lived in Albany, I’d like to be there too.
“What is it about carousels?” I ask lead painter Gwen Marchese, who is watching me with a smile as I discover what she observes every day.
“Music, colour. Things for kids that are not too expensive. The magic doesn’t stop with that. Look at these people,” she answers. And I take a last glance at this Santa’s workshop that exists all year long in Albany, Oregon.
All photos are © Star Weiss – all rights reserved