Where do dreams begin? In the unlikeliest of places, namely the flat, asphalt heart of Irwindale.
Out past the gleaming brewery tanks promising refreshment on a scorching summer day, amid the miles of flat-topped warehouses, Lourinda Bray’s dreams buck, prance, whinny and gallop behind a series of heavy-duty security doors in utter silence.
Outside, a massive Euphorbia tirucalli thrives oblivious in the industrial-strength heat, casting pencil-shadows over the ginger tabby named ‘Barb (short for Rhubarb) who serves as bouncer. Inside the vast interior, there isn’t a merry-go-round or a carousel, but instead hundreds of carved wooden horses along with other beasts, some real, some imaginary, in various states of restoration, along with tools, stacks of sandpaper, cans of paint and lacquer, brushes, various parts and hardware, sketches, vintage Christmas decorations and antique toys.
Growing up in Pasadena, as a child Lourinda Bray fell in love with the Griffith Park merry-go-round, with no inkling that the jeweled ponies rising and lowering to the boopy calliope tunes would become her consuming passion of four decades. Today, she still lives in her childhood home in the Arroyo Terrace neighborhood of Linda Vista, and recently found one of her report-cards in a batch of family papers.
“The report card said that I didn’t like to sit on the floor and play with trucks with the boys,” she says. “Well, of course not. I was always wearing a frilly little dress, and didn’t want to get my panties dirty. The report card also said that I made a mess of the painting table, but that’s because no one saw what I was actually doing. I was fingerpainting underwater scenes with coral and ocean creatures.” Small wonder: Lourinda celebrated her birthday on July 8, being a Cancerian or Moonchild, the Cardinal Water-sign.
In the 1970s, she worked as a commercial sign-painter in Eagle Rock, lending freehand flourishes to industrial signage. She bought her first badly-in-need-of TLC carousel horse on a whim, and worked on restoring it in the basement.
“I was new to woodworking, so I could not get the screws out of that hundred-year old wood. Luckily, a neighbor had a hacksaw and one of those really narrow screwdrivers, and he showed me how. I had to figure out the rest myself,” she says.
“No one would tell me how to do anything.”
In 1982 or 1983, some details have been lost to time, Lourinda purchased the building that is now home to her Running Horse Studio. Ever since, carousel-animal collectors from around the world have sent her their ride-weary steeds in need of refurbishing.
Some of the horses and other creatures in need of repair and restoration will be returned to active duty on functioning carousels. A growing number of orders, however, are from decorators and other private parties who purchase the wooden figures at auction as decor items. “My goal is to bring them back as close to original factory finish as possible,” says Lourinda.
The work is painstaking, tedious and slow, a consummate exercise in delayed gratification. It begins with a long bath of gnarly chemical solvent to soften and strip away decades of layered enamel paint. Broken and damaged appendages need to be repaired or replaced. The right rear hoof of a galloping horse, for example, often snaps off because eager riders tend to use it as a handy step when mounting.
Newer horses may have replacement limbs and heads of cast aluminum instead of wood. That’s for durability and also to reduce the overall weight of the carousel with its usual load of 72 mounts including chariots, swan seats for two and other non-equine seating.
Tails, too, are common casualties. A hundred years ago, flowing tails of genuine horsehair were common, and Running Horse Studio can supply these if desired. A few stags in the current menagerie are crowned with naturally shed antlers.
The beasts are always hollow-bodied, composed of several joined parts and old wood tends to expand and crack. Gaps emerge. Paint wears off. Glass baubles, typically placed on only one side of the saddle, eventually wiggle out of place, as do glass eyes.
Once sanded to a velvet touch, the beasts are primed a ghostly white to seal the wood. Decorating the surface with paint, gold leaf and high-gloss varnish are the last steps.
For more than 40 years Lourinda has done most of it alone, with occasional help including the skills of restorer Carolyn Caverly. On the day of my visit, Carolyn was working on the scales of a hippocampus. “No self-respecting carousel devotee would call this a ‘sea-horse’!” she chuckles.
An area of the human brain also called the hippocampus for its curved shape, appropriately enough, processes emotion and is essential in the formation of memories.
Although it’s a natural mistake to assume that carousels are a European specialty, the merry-go-round as we know it is proudly American. With the advent of steam-power in the mid-1860s, American carvers made carousels that were larger and more elaborate than their continental predecessors and added the thrillingly vertical ascent and descent of the steeds to the circular orbit of the ride.
Therefore, it’s only proper that nearly all of the American-made horses in Lourinda’s indoor corral are carved from Tilia americana, a hardwood species in the family Malvaceae, indigenous to the American Northeast. The fine-grained wood is called Basswood, Whitewood or American Linden.
“Popsicle sticks and tongue-depressors are made from Basswood,” explains Carolyn, “so if we find a split that’s too big to be filled in with wood putty, we might file down a piece of tongue-depressor, shape it, and place it into the gap.”
The carefully sized sliver, no larger than a toothpick, is epoxied into place, allowed to cure, then sanded to perfection. Carolyn also uses the end of Popsicle stick wrapped in fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out the furling tail of the hippocampus, one scale at a time.
Many steps and many days, weeks and months may be needed to complete the process.
Recent medical challenges have slowed down studio production. In addition to horses, dozens of others — storks, zebras, dragons, giraffes, even a red-eyed witch — mutely await their eventual transformation.
With a shrug, Lourinda explains that there’s no shortage of bright-eyed volunteers who think they want to do this work.
“The trouble is,” she says, “everybody wants to do the finishing touches, like painting the flowers in the manes, or gold-leafing a design on a saddle. That’s the easy part, the sweet part.”
“The way I look at it, that decorative work at the end is your reward for the sore back and raw fingertips it takes to get there.”