Flight of fancy
Newburyport, Haverhill artists creating a whimsical new carousel for children visiting Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway
By Taryn Plumb | Globe Correspondent
May 19, 2013
A miniaturized right whale is caught in mid-spout, baleen exposed, barnacles clinging.
A sea turtle swims, its wide shell blushed with yellow and iridescent red, flippers with waves of violet, pink, and cobalt.
Enormous butterflies hover – monarchs in dramatic orange and black; buckeyes boasting amethyst spots; swallowtails showing off elaborate webbed patterns of scarlet, purple, and blue.
Carousels usually evoke images of horses of various shapes and sizes, adorned with flamboyant regalia, circling endlessly in trots and leaps to a backdrop of colorful lights and carnival music.
But this carousel – designed, sculpted, and painted by two local artists, and soon to adorn the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway in Boston – is a horse of a different color.In fact, it doesn’t have any horses at all.
“You’ll never see another one like this,” said designer Jeff Briggs of Newburyport. “It’s much more elaborate, much more intense.”
To be installed by Labor Day weekend, the carousel will include a resplendent assortment of local land, sea, and air creatures: lobsters, rabbits, owls, a skunk, squirrel, fox, right whale, sea turtle, cod, peregrine falcon, grasshopper, three species of butterflies, a sea serpent gondola, and a harbor seal chariot. According to the Rose Fitzgerald Greenway Conservancy, the animals were inspired by drawings from Boston schoolchildren, and the project, which also includes a new park, was funded by grants and several dozen donors.
Briggs, for his part, has spent the last three years dedicated to it, intensively researching the various creatures, then designing and sculpting them. PainterWilliam Rogers of Haverhill has worked to bring depth and dimension to what are essentially shaped canvases, painting each piece by hand and with airbrushes, and sometimes using sponging to create the illusion of fur.
“I had never really painted in three dimensions,” Rogers, who specializes in backdrops, murals, and trompe l’oeil, said on a recent afternoon in his Haverhill workshop, rubbing his hand over the shell of a giant lobster. “To get these things that are ghost-white and give them life is really exhilarating.”
Around him in the large former mill space, the figures were spread out in various stages of completion, all secured on their poles. Some were covered in plastic, others exposed and bare white; a few had sockets in need of eyes, while several were completed and seemingly prideful in their extravagant markings and colorings. The interior housing of the carousel, elaborately carved with butterflies, also took up one corner.
A total of 14 creatures will be spread out over three rows on the carousel; most will appear only once, while the butterflies, rabbit, lobster, and owl will be repeated. The 36-foot-diametercreation will be powered by an interior motor surrounded by the carved wood housing, and will also incorporate mirrors, an interactive sound system, and an LED theatrical light display, Briggs explained.
“As it turns, you’ll have this rhythm of light,” he said from his seat on the seal chariot, as yet unpainted and with ponderous, reddish glass eyes.
The animals, with bodies of fiberglass and eyes of custom-made glass, are both lifelike and whimsical.
The gray squirrel bounds, tail curled over its body. The fox prances, head turned and ears pert. The barn owl spreads its wings in midflight. The bright blue right whale blows out a spout of water, baring its baleen and pink tongue, barnacles fixed on its snout.
Entwining itself with the gondola, meanwhile, is a lesser-known creature: A shiny silver, pink and, orange oarfish – the longest bony fish in the sea, growing up to 50 feet and resembling an enormous eel. Rarely seen, it was once deemed a sea serpent.
The colors used in the carousel are vibrant and purposely exaggerated; Rogers accentuated each animal’s natural markings with shadowing and layering techniques and interference paint (which essentially changes color depending on the angle).
For instance, the lobster – tail lowered, claws clasped together – has its natural dark brown elements, but they’re accented with subtle purple and green hues. The turtle’s flippers shimmer with varying shades of purple, red, yellow, tan, and orange, while its shell features subtler strokes of brown, amber, crimson, and lavender. And the skunk, which seems a simple black and white, has hints of blue and violet.
“You can almost see the life in this thing,” Rogers said.
Getting to an end product required hours of research – Rogers and Briggs relied on numerous photographs of each animal at different times of day (Rogers pointed out that even a plain gray squirrel looks different in sunlight than at dusk), investigating their color ranges, movements, habits, where they live, what they eat.
Briggs said he uses “anything I can get for reference materials.”
He even bought a live lobster, photographed it, and ossified it to study its features, and spent several hours at the New England Aquarium “playing with the seals.”
“We try to get a real sense of what the animal is like,” he said, “what things to emphasize and de-emphasize.”
It’s a process he knows from experience: In 2006, he created a custom carousel for Detroit that includes a pair of swans, a snail, catfish, frog, heron, bald eagle, and even a mermaid. As a sculptor through his company, Briggs Design, he said he’s done “everything but” a traditional carousel horse.
Carousels had their golden period in the early part of the 20th century; since then, many have deteriorated or been dismantled. But Briggs said he has seen renewed interest in the traditional craft. “It’s an art form that’s come back to life,” he said.
And from an artist’s standpoint, “it’s making sculpture that is usable,” he said.
When asked how he felt about thousands of people climbing all over his work, he said: “When you see a little kid up there with a smile on his face, it’s like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Origins of the magical ride■In the 12th century, Arabian and Turkish horsemen played a game on horseback described as “carosella,” or a “little war.”
■Gustav Dentzel of Germany pioneered the modern carousel in America in the 1860s.
■The Flying Carousel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, built in 1876, is the nation’s oldest platform carousel and has been designated by the US Department of the Interior as a national landmark. It originally operated on Coney Island and was moved to a red barn in Oak Bluffs in 1884.
■There were more than 4,000 built during the ride’s golden age in the early 1900s.
■About 150 intact carousels are estimated to exist today.
Sources: International Museum of Carousel Art, Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust.
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