Spokane Journal of Business

Her work is a merry-go-round

Carrousel Consultants

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As the cheery music starts and the colorful horses spring forward on their circular journey, eyes light up and smiles spread across the generations. From toddlers to seniors, the magic of the merry-go-round touches every age.

The carousel is usually the first ride you ride as a kid and the last one you will still ride as an adult, says Bette Largent, owner of a nearly 9-year-old business here called Carrousel Consultants.

On mankinds lifelong love of carousels, Largent has built a business as an artist who specializes in preserving and creating carousels. She restores antique carousels, usually working with a team of subcontractors and experts who assist with carving the horses and other figures, rebuilding the mechanical parts of the merry-go-round, and repairing the flooring the figures are mounted on. She also creates new carousel pieces for collectors, and collaborates with manufacturers and communities that are building new wooden carousels.

Largent has written a book, Paint the Ponies, about painting carousel figures using techniques based on those of early carousel manufacturers, and writes a column on painting methods for an Internet-based magazine about carousels. She conducts seminars on painting and carving carousel figures, and on marketing and managing merry-go-rounds. On her own web site, at www.carousel.net/largent/, she touts her talents and picks up sales of her book from foreign countries. She also is a member of the board of directors of the National Carousel Association.

Before starting Carrousel Consultants, Largent had been a librarian and then had managed travel agencies, all while doing freelance art whenever she could, from painting store windows for the holidays to designing jewelry.

I never had been able to do just art, she says. I wanted to paint.

About nine years ago, as technology began to change the travel-planning business and the Gulf War caused a temporary slump in travel, Largent left the travel business so she could work summers at Riverfront Park and paint watercolors during the winters.

Her artistic interest was piqued when she learned while working at the park that the city of Spokane planned to repair and repaint the horses on its 1909 Looff Carrousel.

Encouraged by her daughter, Lissa, who was then 10, Largent bid on the carousel restoration work. She was awarded the project and continues to serve as a consultant under contract to the city to maintain the carousel. Largent estimates that over the years, she has overseen some $500,000 of restoration work on the carousel at Riverfront Park.

Al Osborne, owner of J & K Custom Cabinets, of Spokane, has teamed up with Largent on restoration work at the Riverfront Looff Carrousel and other projects. Osborne and Largent recently restored 20 horses and two art deco chariots for an early 1900s carousel in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Wheaton, Md. Carrousel Consultants landed the $50,000 Wheaton project about six months ago and a truckload of wooden horses, mostly in pieces, arrived from the East Coast shortly thereafter, Largent says. She delivered the completed horses to Maryland last month and worked out a historically accurate layout that coordinates the carousel horses by size, style, and colors.

During the project, Largent removed plaster and paint from previous restoration attempts, and Osborne spent about eight weeks carving dozens of new legs and reassembling parts. She tracked and documented the history of each figure, using old catalogs from carousel manufacturers and books on the history of merry-go-rounds in the U.S., and also kept an artists log that recorded and explained each step in the restoration process.

In painting carousel figures, Largent builds up layers of paint to emulate the rich colors that early manufacturers achieved with lead-based paints. She says she starts painting with brushes that are about an inch wide, but applies subsequent layers of color with narrower brushes, sometimes adding final naturalistic details with brushes that are only several hairs wide.

Largent and Osborne are working together on the restoration of a carousel at the Ferry County Fairgrounds in Republic, Wash., thats more than a century old. As part of that project, Largent is holding seminars to teach Republic residents how to paint the horses of their community merry-go-round.

She also has taught painting seminars during other community carousel-building projects, including projects to build new wooden carousels in Missoula and Butte, Mont.

In addition to projects for large working carousels, Largent also restores and paints individual figures for collectors, often working with a carver in Montana on newly carved custom-made horses. She says restoring an antique carousel figure or painting a new custom-made creature usually costs several thousand dollars.

Custom figures usually reflect the buyers interests, such as a horse made for a teacher that featured saddlebags packed with school supplies. She also has painted for a collector a replica of Prince, the armored black stallion from the Looff Carrousel in Riverfront Park, bedecked with gold leaf. For one customer in California, she restored four antique horses and had a miniature merry-go-round built so he could give backyard carousel rides to his grandchildren.

Largent says the variety of projects she handles keeps her busy all the time, but demand is growing for carousels at parks and zoos, and in the future she may focus her business on those large projects rather than on work for individuals.

  • Anita Burke

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