Occasionally, a family of tourists will stop by The Ringling’s Circus Museum woodcarving shop. The guys (and one woman carver) love it when children visit. It’s as if they’re waiting for one question in particular:
“What is that?” a child asks them regarding the to-scale camel sculpture they have been carving since 2008.
“It’s a giraffe,” one of the volunteers responds.
The children usually know better, but the carvers always try to put it past them. Both parties involved get a kick out the banter. It’s exemplary of the kind of fun that keeps the dozen-or-so volunteers coming at 10 a.m. every Thursday morning.
The best time to visit the shop during season is before lunch. It’s when the wood carvers are in action. Three or four of the volunteers work on the large camel carving, while the other 10 hunch over projects around the periphery. There are a handful of women who come to paint some of the finished products on Wednesdays. The Ringling offers these ornaments and decorative art they create in the gift shop of the Circus Museum. They usually fly off the shelves as quickly as they are produced.
This exhibit started more than three decades ago. Five men — Joe McKennon, Bruce Miller, Dr. Alex Aitken, Ed McDonnell, and Bernie Lippner — were The Ringling’s first generation of wood carvers. They began re-creating and salvaging the historic carvings on the sides of circus wagons, chariots and animal cages. They re-created a 1902 Ringling Bros. Griffin wagon, which they completed in 1979. It was the group’s biggest project, re-created using photographs. It’s on display at the museum along with the rest of the bigger pieces the men today create.
The group of carvers you’ll find on Thursdays these days is the second generation, although a couple of them (Graham Barkhuff and Don Welch) came around when the first-generation carvers were still carving. After the Griffin wagon and wagon carving in the early ’90s, the carvers started producing the large carousel animal sculptures. These parade outside the wood carving shop and, when completed, become a display in the Circus Museum. Wood carving is a way to demonstrate the old circus art form as a way to prevent it from becoming a lost art. The first sculpture was “Ringo’s horse.” In fact, Barkhuff claims one of the legs as his handiwork.
“I got the tail,” Don Welch says, chiming in.
The horse was completed in 1999. Then came the baby elephant in 2002 and the tiger in 2008. They’ve been working on the camel for three hours a day, one day a week since 2008. They expect it’ll take another three years.
The tree ornaments they make (tigers, snowmen, Santa, elephants, lions and camels — oh, my!) started in 2002 out of spite. John Haynie tells the story. He was around when they started carving the elephant, but his name was left off the plaque on the base of the completed carving that lists the names of men who work on them. But, Haynie created the textural folds in the elephant’s skin.
“I said, ‘How come my name isn’t on it?’” Haynie says. “And they said, ‘Kid, we didn’t have room!’”
It made him mad, so he started making tree ornaments — before that time they didn’t make any smaller carvings. Prior to his time at The Ringling, in Historic Cold Spring Village in Cape May, N.J., a living history museum with a similar woodcarving exhibition, Haynie carved 1,020 Santa Claus ornaments as an artisan on display.
All of the volunteers started with woodworking experience. Marty Rosen, 75, the designated camel project manager and designer of the majority of the ornaments, was in advertising and would rush home daily at 5 p.m. to carve furniture and other decorative carvings in his garage. The other men have similar stories; they are retired industrial arts teachers, a policeman, a dentist, a commercial banker, and there have been a couple of FBI agents, to name a few of the careers from which they are retired. They all wear volunteer lanyards with their names, and most of them have additional merits designating “1,000-plus hours” or even “5,000-plus hours.”
They’ve had three new members in the past six years. The newest volunteer and only female carver, Nora Sellmer, started two years ago. It’s a difficult position to get — the group is not actively seeking new volunteers. But when it is, there’s an interview process that involves seeing a craftsman’s work. Sellmer had to take a cabinet door she made off of her own kitchen cabinets to demonstrate her ability. She was a professional sign maker in Vermont and one of few who actually comes in with detailed, hand-carving experience in addition to woodworking.
The large-scale works are a great opportunity for woodworkers.
“We can make these things (ornaments) at home in our garage, but where are you going to do that?” Dick Dorn asks, pointing to the camel. “Most woodworkers would give their right teeth to come in here (and work on that).”
But, most of the guys come for the craftsmanship and stick around for the camaraderie. They occasionally socialize outside of the shop and will go to dinner or on other field trips. They went to see an art show in Venice that featured one of Marty Rosen’s wood sculptures. And there’s always something to talk about in the shop — it’s never quiet.
“But we don’t talk politics,” says John Haynie with a laugh.
Regularly asked questions and the typical responses you will hear:
What is it? It’s a giraffe. It’s a camel.
Does it have a name? No. Not yet, but they are open to any child’s suggestion.
What kind of wood is the camel? Linden wood.
How long have you been working on it? Since Lincoln was in office. We don’t remember. For three years.
Did it start out as one piece of wood? No, it started in segments of wood based on a model form.
Do your fingers ever get sore? No, and most wood workers are proud of their scars and sores. And if Manfred Klatt hears you ask, he might show you his two missing finger tips.
Is it made of fiberglass? No. Once they are painted, they might look like they aren’t made of wood — they are indeed made of wood.
By the numbers
3 — numbers of new members in the past six years
1879 — the year the oldest-surviving circus wagon was built. You can see it in the circus museum.
1979 — the year the newest circus wagon, The Griffin, was built. You can see it at the Circus Museum.
18 – number of tassels on the camel
20 – average hours it takes for one tassel
12 – hours it takes to complete an ornament
4 – people it takes to complete an ornament (one cuts it out, one carves it, one designs it, one paints it)
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