by Justin Stokes, launchengine.io
Once upon a time, there was a little boy who became enchanted with the Lincoln Park Carousel. He appreciated everything about the carousel’s 48 horses. He loved everything, from each horse’s unique glass eyes to the hand-painted details of the 34 columns and scenes, every one a different adventure.
That little boy grew up to be Ken Means, a master woodcarver, painter, and bronze artist. And though he couldn’t know it at the time, his love for that carousel would introduce him to the world of fine art. “It was an amazing carousel… I loved that thing,” Ken tells Launch Engine. Recalling his memories from when he was eight years old, Ken (now 80) can still picture the carousel vividly.
Sadly, the Lincoln Park carousel that was part of Ken’s childhood was destroyed in a fire. But its status as a treasured American amusement gave Ken a lasting appreciation for the arts. It also inspired him to use his talents to bring a functional carousel to Franklin.
Ken, along with his wife Betty, relocated from Oregon to Franklin, TN after one of his daughters arranged for the rental of studio space in The Factory at Franklin. At the front of the mall, shoppers can see Ken and Betty hard at work in the Ken Means Carousel Menagerie workshop.
Ken’s artistic background is too vast to cover fully in one article. In fact, he jokes that his complete biography would be about five pages long. However, we can state that it begins in the early 1960s, with achievements like painting backdrops for films like “The Sand Pebbles,” and day-to-day efforts making sets for the Pasadena Playhouse. His painting work has also included billboard murals, with some stretching up to 50 feet long. He also painted the backdrop for the Hollywood Wax Museum’s “Dracula” exhibit.
“A lot of that stuff isn’t done any longer,” Ken says. “They don’t… hand-paint scenes in Hollywood anymore. It’s all photographic. I mean, you’ll have things as big as a wall, and it’s a photograph.”
However, the Fates had more in store for Ken Means and their plans included painted horses!
“Where I really got started… I made a rocking horse for my daughters when they were little.” Ken shares that his decision to use his talents as an artist came when his wife asked him to carve a rocking horse for their children for Christmas. “I started on Thanksgiving weekend to build a rocking horse for the kids, and it was ready Christmas morning.”
Ken recalls that the rocking horses were “one of my more successful endeavors,” and tells a story of a museum exhibition of his work that featured 14 rocking horses—many carved by Ken’s students—and none of them were created with the same design! Ken shares that the show was both personally rewarding for him and was well-received by the audience. He adds that those rocking horses are still in existence, and that they’re prized possessions of his now-adult daughters who let Ken’s grandchildren play on them.
“We had a dentist who I did a piece for. I would trade work for work. Instead of paying him, I carved him a horse.” Ken’s work attitude of “You have to do what you have to do,” was actually able to get him free dental work until he moved from California to Oregon. Ken says, “The crux of the story is when the dentist’s daughters grew up and went off to college, and one of his daughters was getting married, he called me up and he said, ‘Ken, I know you’re gonna be mad at me, but can you fix my horse?’ The kids had used it so much, it had crayon marks and a broken ear, and it was all really, really well, well used. And I was just elated. I said, ‘Of course, I’ll fix it for you.’”
For Ken, it was about bringing that same level of love to other people that he experienced when he was a child. “That’s what it’s for!” Ken explains. Then pointing to one of the carousel animals, he continues, “That’s what these are for! People say, ‘Well you’re not gonna let kids on these,’ and I say, ‘Of course, I’m gonna let them on it.’”
Ken wanted to pick something that would endure the test of time. He realized that making a carousel is something only a handful of people have been able to do. With this in mind, he seized the opportunity to achieve his desire to bring happiness and wonder to the young and old alike.
For further information about the Ken Means Carousel Project, be sure to visit his website or follow his Facebook and Instagram pages for updates. Those interested in Ken’s woodcarving lessons are encouraged to reach out to him via [email protected]