By Nancy Henderson
“When pigs fly.” That was Valerie Joh’s knee-jerk reaction when, in 2008, her husband, Gale, surprised her by declaring that Kingsport needed a carousel like the one in his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y.
Valerie Joh, a city alderman, horse lover and real estate agent for 40 years, knew such a project would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where would Kingsport get the money? But her husband, who was beginning to show signs of Lewy body dementia, a disease associated with Parkinson’s, was determined to pursue his dream. So he called Reggie Martin, a longtime woodworker, who recruited three fellow Kiwanis Club members. The group traveled with Bonnie Macdonald, manager of Kingsport’s Office of Cultural Arts, to Horsin’ Around, a carousel carving school near Chattanooga, to learn more.
Convinced they needed to build their own merry-go-round rather than buy one ready-made, the organizers vowed to involve as many Kingsport residents as possible. The city donated space for a studio in the new Lynn View Community Center, and in 2010, Martin and his woodcarving buddies crafted four small horses, prompting area residents to jokingly nickname the fledgling carousel builders “the Four Horsemen.”
Other volunteers brought band saws and chisels, ready to craft a menagerie of tigers, giraffes and other rides. Many had no art experience. None had crafted a carousel critter, not even Martin. “Before this, I’d only carved small squirrels, an eagle head for a walking cane, little hound dogs,” he says. Some of the carvers-in-training took classes at Horsin’ Around; others learned by trial and error at the Kingsport studio.
Gale passed away in 2010, and a year later his wife joined the cadre of carvers. “I’d never carved a bar of soap,” admits Joh, a college art major.
That didn’t stop her from carving a golden-maned unicorn, then a dancing Siamese cat. Next came the red squirrel for the “sweeps” – the carousel’s rafters – and a fat marmalade cat. To honor her late husband, she fashioned a flying pig for the top of the ticket booth. “I figured that Gale deserved that,” Joh says. “And after that, I thought, ‘I’m not through carving.’ … So now I’m carving a much more complicated horse because I can.”
It was almost as if Gale still “had a hand” in the project, Joh adds. Each time a need arose, a solution miraculously appeared. In 2011, the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Conn., donated a 1956 Herschell carousel base zookeepers had placed in storage after acquiring a shiny new one. Artists donated their time, turning the old seashore scenes on the 24 running boards into historic depictions of Kingsport, from Daniel Boone’s trailblazing adventures to the city’s first industries, and painting colorful local birds on the panels covering the motor.
When Joe Pilkenton, a retired graphic artist who’d designed brochures, billboards and other marketing materials for clients like Dollywood, set out to carve a white buffalo, he had no idea it would quickly outgrow the carousel base. “I’d never done anything this size,” says Pilkenton, who’d previously forged smaller sculptures. “Not only the carving of it, but the engineering, was pretty trying. I had to figure out how in the world this thing was gonna support all the weight, plus the people on it. It’s hollow on the inside … but it still weighs 760 pounds.”
Pilkenton’s buffalo, which can seat five kids on its head and shoulders and two adults on its rugged saddle, will claim a special spot in the gift shop. His second carving, a pinto, is the lead horse on the carousel.
Altogether, more than 200 Kingsport residents, including 45 carvers, stepped up to help, and sponsors raised nearly $800,000 to build the carousel, gift shop and ticket booth in a new urban park near the downtown Farmers Market.
“This community has a great sense of volunteerism,” Joh says. “There are so many people involved in giving their time for nothing. This was a fun project and people just kind of got excited about it, and they still are. There’s something magical about a carousel.”
“It’s just been amazing, the number of volunteers that have stepped up to help us,” he says. “All of us, the carvers especially, since they’ve been working on it almost every day of the week, have developed our own little community of new friends. We’ve just become a family.”
This summer, construction begins on the carousel building, which is expected to open sometime in early 2015. In the meantime, visitors are welcome to tour the studio and watch the carvers in action.
“People ask us sometimes, ‘Are you really gonna let people get on these beautiful animals?’ ” Martin says. “We’re looking forward to the day when [kids] can get on ’em and ride. It’s gonna be an emotional day, not only for me but for everybody.”
How to Build a Carousel
Each of the Kingsport carousel’s 32 platform animals, two chariots and 24 rafter-based creatures began as a sketch transformed into a blueprint with an overhead projector and a magic marker. Volunteers transferred the outlines to 2-inch-thick basswood boards, then sawed the shapes and glued them together to achieve the required thickness. Using specially shaped chisels, each woodworker then spent 600 to 1,000 hours carving his or her animal, followed by many more hours sanding, priming and filling the joints with putty. It took the artist two or three months to paint the piece and coax out muscles, fur patterns and other details before the design was preserved with five coats of poly-acrylic finish.
Watch a video of the carousel carvers in action here.