A years-long effort to repaint the carousel’s hand-sculpted animals is underway in Grand Rapids


GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Britteny Young sponges paint the wooden horse removed from the iconic carousel at the Grand Rapids public museum.

It’s a technique that will give the carousel animal a more textured and realistic look compared to the paint jobs the animals have had for nearly three decades.

Young is a painter at the Grand Rapids Public Museum and is part of the museum’s endeavor to repaint and, if necessary, repair the 44 hand-sculpted horses and six menagerie animals on its 1928 Spillman Carousel.

Not including necessary repairs, the entire process of stripping, sanding, priming and hand painting each animal takes an average of 300 hours. Hours of work vary depending on the size of the animal as well as the amount of detail.

Given all of the animals on the carousel, the project will take at least two to three years, said Stevie Hornyak, the museum’s exhibition coordination specialist.

The venture will make the animals more realistic, give them more character and individual personality, and also make it easier for museum staff to perform touch-ups on the animals if they get bloodied, Hornyak said.

“Each animal will have its own personality,” Hornyak said. “A lot of kids like to choose their favourite. I even saw some crying today because another kid got another kid’s horse. It’s very personal, so we thought, ‘This will be awesome. Everyone can feel like they have their own horse.

Paint on the saddle, traps, bridle and more will stay true to the original 1994 color scheme, while the horses themselves will be inspired by American horses and textured with sponges and multiple glazes that will enhance the carvings underneath, Hornyak said.

The carousel was built in 1928 and installed in the museum at 272 Pearl St. NW in 1994. It is located in the museum pavilion overlooking the Grand River and has long been part of the museum’s identity.

After closing for nearly two years for mechanical and electrical upgrades and repairs that were partially delayed due to the pandemic, the carousel reopened to the public on May 25.

Related: Iconic carousel overlooking the Grand River reopens after 2 years of closure

So far, customers can enjoy five of the newly painted animals – a deer, a giraffe and three horses – which have been completed and placed back on the carousel.

Customers may notice more shiny fiberglass animals on the carousel. These are loan animals that the museum has received to maintain the carousel’s balance while it restores the original animals piecemeal.

Some animals in need of major repairs are sent to Carousel and Carvings in Ohio.

Since being restored and placed in the museum in 1994, the pre-renovation animals have been coated with automotive paint that has been sprayed on. Because of the paint, it was not possible to make the necessary touch-ups while the animals were still attached to the carousel.

“The paint on the car is extremely stinky,” Hornyak said. “We had to bring it all the way here to spray it. It could be off the carousel for weeks at a time.

Now, thanks to the different technique and the switch to water-based paints, museum staff can touch up the newly painted animals while they are attached to the carousel, reducing downtime and working hours.

With mechanical and electrical upgrades completed during the pandemic, returning customers will also notice new bilingual signage and lights indicating when the ride is about to start and end.

Lights can be used in place of a sound indicating the start and end of the ride, accommodating those with sensory issues. Ride personnel can also play digital music during the ride, which can be set to a lower volume or turned off completely.

The museum also makes one of the two carousel carts wheelchair accessible. The carousel will also feature a wheelchair accessible ramp.

Museum staff were unable to provide an estimate of the cost of the project to repaint the animals or mechanical and electrical upgrades, but encouraged people to donate. People can learn more about donations at grpm.org/donate/. People can also learn more at grpm.org/1928-spillman-carousel/.

They said the improvements could not have been undertaken without donations from the Peter C. and Emajean Cook Foundation and members of the community. The Cook Foundation matches all funds donated by community members.

For every dollar donated on donations of up to $300,000, The Cook Foundation will contribute $2 toward renovation costs.

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