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Staring at you through a window is a small black horse with a golden bridle, a golden saddle, and a bloodred tongue. With its hooves suspended in midair and lips writhing, it looks like it’s going to break through the glass and leap out at you.
“I always wanted one so badly,” says Lisa Parr. She’s contemplating a big, friendly white horse with a yellow bridle and a sky blue saddle, a white tail, and a lot of small, circular mirrors scattered along its body. “I think they’re the neatest things in the world. They’ve been places. They’ve been with little kids and in Europe and all that kind of stuff. They have several layers of paint, and each layer of paint tells a story.”
Parr, who owns Old Parr’s Carousel Animals, likes to doctor wooden equines. Her studio looks like a wooden-horse chop shop: hooves and legs are strewn all over, there are strands of horsehair and the wooden shells of horse torsos. Cans of paint and brushes and scraping tools round out the mess. If your carousel horse is missing a leg, she’ll carve you an artificial one. If your horse is collecting cobwebs or frightening the children, she’ll sell it to a collector.
Parr has never been a big fan of carnivals, nor has she ever had much fondness for live horses. “Theyre awful big,” she says. But wooden animals, especially carousel horses, have clearly captured her imagination.
“I call what I do more research than art, though I think it’s a fine art too,” says Parr, sitting in her studio on a dilapidated sofa. Wearing a black T-shirt and a raspberry skirt, she looks a little like an unkempt Sigourney Weaver. Her arms have bruises all over them from lugging wooden horses around.
“C’mere. Take a look at this,” Parr says, her eyes lighting up as she gestures to a little butterscotch horse topped with a red saddle. “This is an English piece, about 1870,” she begins, and continues with an explanation worthy of Sherlock Holmes:
“One of the ways you can tell he’s English is he goes the wrong direction. There are two sides to the horse, and the side that faces out is called the ‘romance side.’ That’s the one that has the most design, or where the head is turned toward. You can tell English, German, and sometimes French horses because they go clockwise.” She adds that while they were cleaning this horse, “We found that it had been through a fire. Someone had saved him just in the nick of time.”
Parr has had a lifelong fascination with wood and art history. She comes from a family of designers and taught art history in Ithaca, New York. She has carved wood and stone artwork. After carving pipe stems for a tobacco store and teaching design to dental students who needed to learn how to carve teeth, she opened up Old Parr’s Carousel. (She takes the name from a distant relative of hers, Old Parr, who she says was the uncle of Henry VIII’s last wife.)
Obtaining a tail for a tailless horse is Parr’s least favorite part of the job.
“There are three ways I may get them.” Parr shudders a little. “I may go to the renderers down on Webster Street, and he says, ‘You can choose from the pile.’ I go over and it’s terrible. They’ve just come off the horses and they’re covered with flies–and they’re very inexpensive.” She says preparing them is “a terrible, stinky job. You can’t imagine the smell.
“Or I may go to the horse farm where the old horses are, and I can choose the horses’ tails while they’re still on the horses. I don’t like that part, either. Or I may pay a fortune to send away for the tails, which really makes me feel better. It’s a mail-order tail place where somebody else does all the dirty work.”
Parr is currently restoring an entire carousel for a carnival in Waterloo, Wisconsin. “It’s a very primitive machine,” she says. “The horses are pretty rigid, and they’re also a wreck. Their legs are splintered, and they’re in pieces in the other room.
“We’re working on the back of a chariot–that’s where the old ladies and the kids sit.” When she says the word “chariot,” you can see the excitement. “The sides of the chariot are carved, and there was paint slapped all over them,” she says with a quiver. “But it was on that chariot where we uncovered the original signature of the manufacturer. And that is wonderful! That’s unheard of!” But the funny thing is, she adds, that the people they’re doing it for couldn’t care less. “They just want to get the carousel going and get kids riding it.”
Parr still delights in discovering new things about her horses. She had just bought a horse that did not particularly impress her. But as one of her assistants (Paul Shanks, an engineer and carver who was born in South America) peeled away layers of paint, they discovered some breathtaking floral patterns in the original paint job.
Part of Parr’s fascination with carousel animals lies in the ability to restore a fading piece of history. “I suppose this is still fun to do,” she says, “because there are no more carousels”–at least not the kind they used to make. Parr explains why carousels are different these days: “People sue. Parents aren’t responsible for their kids like they used to be, so they’ll sue the carousel owner, and insurance rates are just incredibly high. The horses can’t go up and down anymore, and they can’t move nearly as fast as they used to.” Plus horses are now made out of fiberglass instead of wood.
Carousels evolved, Parr says, from an Arabian game. Horsemen rode in a circle, one of them carrying a ball filled with perfume. He’d toss it across the circle, and if it hit opponent, “He got perfume all over him, and he was considered the loser.
“When the trade routes opened up in the 14th century,” Parr says, “Europeans saw this game and thought it was fascinating and brought it back with them. And the French picked it up and thought, ‘Isn’t this ever so chic?’ The courts devised a way of having the ladies ride on something like a wagon wheel with spokes sticking out of it. And there would be crude carvings of horses, and the ladies could ride around on the horses.” Slaves or horses pulled the wheel, she says. The carousel’s brass ring evolved from the jousting of knights, who had to hit a small ring with a lance to show their prowess.
“There was a big brass ring on the old carousels way up high, and when kids rode on the outside, they could hang onto the pole and reach as they went around and reach the brass ring. And if you caught the brass ring, you got a free ride.”
Parr pauses briefly and looks about at some of the wooden horses she has worked so hard to restore to their former glory. She sighs and shrugs. “Now, there is no more brass ring.”
Old Parr’s Carousel Animals is at 7235 1/2 N. Sheridan Road. For information call 743-1700.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.