It’s as if the horses from the Joyland merry-go-round, in storage in a warehouse at Botanica, are feeling their age.
The horses – forever frozen in their stride – now are lined up side by side in rows, their carnival colors dulled, the wood on some cracked down to the hindquarters.
But a carousel horse whisperer – Wichitan Marlene Irvin, who rode the horses as a child – is bringing them, one by one, back to a new life: shiny, earth-toned, decorated with the tendrils of leaves and flowers, to take new generations of children on rides in the gardens of Botanica.
In an un-air-conditioned backyard workshop whose doors are open to the sound of birds, Irvin removes as many as 15 layers of old paint from the horses, gingerly removing nails holding them together, taking the surface down to the original wood, much of which is soft and fragile. She chips and files and sands, virtually all by hand, to restore the now-rare merry-go-round that was made in 1949 in New York.
In the process, which can take 75 to 500 hours for each horse, depending on its condition, Irvin senses how she should paint the horses.
“They all have their own personalities,” Irvin says, “and I know this sounds really weird, but when you take a horse that’s in the condition they’re in, there’s a lot of time you spend just getting ready to paint, and during those hundreds of hours and that hands-on, I develop a sense of the horse – ‘I’m a male horse; you need to paint me more masculine,’ or ‘I’m a female horse.’ I get these vibes. They tell me what they want to be.”
Irvin has finished eight of the 36 horses so far, and five of them are on display in Botanica’s lobby. One of them will rotate out each time Irvin finishes a set of four.
“They’re just beautiful,” says Botanica director Marty Miller, who went to school at West High with Irvin, though she’s a couple of years younger, and who also rode the merry-go-round as a child. Miller received the gift of the merry-go-round from Joyland owner Margaret Nelson Spear last year. The amusement park closed in 2006.
Botanica so far has raised $500,000 for the carousel project, more than enough to restore the merry-go-round itself but not enough for the estimated $1 million for a building that will make it a year-round attraction behind the farm area of the Downing Children’s Garden. The annual Ghoulish Gala on Fridayis one way Botanica raises money for it.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like yet,” Miller said. Botanica will be having design charrettes to get ideas, and WDM Architects will begin an architectural schematic design of the building.
Irvin says that restoring the horses and a couple of chariots will take her about three years total. Miller hopes that the merry-go-round will open at the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018.
By the way, Marlene, is it merry-go-round or carousel?
“Carousel is more of a European term, and merry-go-round is an American term. When I went to Joyland, it was a merry-go-round. But in my professional life, they’re carousels.”
Irvin started her career at Wichita’s Chance manufacturer of amusement-park rides in 1978, moving from the fiberglass shop to the parts department to the art department. She left to start her own business, Custom Carving & Restoration, in 1992.
“I’ve had an artistic bent that’s kind of a God-given talent,” she says. “I didn’t go to college.”
Irvin is one of only a handful of people who restore carousels in the United States, she says, and she’s restored several, including those for Oak Park Mall in Kansas City and Santa’s Workshop in Colorado Springs, and the one that used to be at Towne West. She’s also worked on hundreds of individual horses for collectors from across the country.
Depending on the condition of the horses, some can take half a year to a year to restore.
“When the horses are all wood, people, for a quick fix, will put another nail or screw in them, so by the time you strip the wood and remove all the metal screws and nails, the legs fall off, typically. A total take-apart, I might have that horse in a hundred pieces laying on the floor, and it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle.”
The Joyland horses are not that involved; the head, tail and legs are aluminum. They are from the type of merry-go-round that went around with traveling carnivals, even though this particular one did not. The horses are more compact; their legs are tucked up, and their bodies are lighter than those of permanent-sited carousels, Irvin says. This type of merry-go-round was more economical, she says. It’s rare to find one today, because they just didn’t survive the road.
In the shop behind Irvin’s house in west Wichita, the horses’ animated faces look strangely isolated, their bodies lying on tables or upright on poles set into car rims.
“Every horse is different. The wood condition is different. How the paint is sticking or not sticking to the animal is different. … Stuff like that keeps it from not being boring for me, because every horse is different, every horse has a unique set of challenges.”
While most people want to talk to her about painting the horses, she actually likes the time-consuming, preliminary work, because she knows that without a good base, “the pretties” would be fleeting.
Using a file to restore a groove in a blanket’s trim, Irvin is in the groove. “Ninety-nine percent of my work is all done with hand tools, it’s not power tools,” she said. “It takes a little bit longer, but you also want it to look authentic in the way it was done. …
“I’m interested in the project, in the client. This is a historical item from Wichita, so I don’t want to do anything that would take away from that.”
Adding to the challenge of the work is the weather; as Irvin labored this summer on her second set of four horses without any air-conditioning, she developed a case of heat rash in mid-July. High humidity also interferes with the work. But she rolls with the punches.
When it finally comes time to painting the horses, Irvin has been given free rein, as long as she gives it a “wow” factor and it fits into the botanical setting, she says. While many of the Joyland horses were black, white or brown, for Botanica their colors will be shades of gray, off-white and buckskin, some of it “palominoed and dappled.” Irvin is adding elaborations such as shading, and one of the horses she just finished has a wood nymph painted on the saddle.
“I want it to reflect the memories of the people of Wichita,” Irvin says of the merry-go-round. But the horses have been there all along, too.
“I’ve had an idea for how to paint a horse, and it says, ‘No, no,’ and I’ve thought it was a pretty good idea, so I’ve gone ahead with it anyway … I’ve had to go back and redo artwork because the horse was screaming, ‘No, that’s not me.’ … I tell the horses to tell me what they want.”
If you go
Ghoulish Gala: Life Is a Carousel
What: Annual Halloween event for adults to raise money for the building to house the Joyland merry-go-round at Botanica; dinner, cocktails, carnival entertainment and Clydesdale horse rides; costumes encouraged, otherwise casual attire
When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Botanica, 701 N. Amidon
How much: $60, $50 for Botanica members
Tickets and information: botanica.org, 316-264-0448