For dog lovers, there are few things more magical than a carousel of canine figures, and the California workshop of sculptor Tim Racer is where that magic happens. There, Racer carves wood into various dog breeds, not only for merry-go-rounds but also for children’s rockers. As fanciful and sublimely embellished as these figures are, they’re also astonishingly lifelike, from nostril to tail-tip — and this is best appreciated in a photograph juxtaposing the real, live dog with his or her wooden likeness.
“I began restoring antique carousel art pieces for collectors before I began carving,” Racer explains of his unusual career trajectory. “I was never a carousel nut; I’d been an illustrator in Chicago before embarking on a new career path here in California. So it was a matter of diet — in order to eat I had to find work, and a chance at restoring carousel antiques came my way.”
“It was a life-changing opportunity,” he adds. “The knowledge I gained from that craft gave me the tools I needed to build my own carousel animals.”
After several years of restoring other artist’s creations, he was inspired to make his own from scratch. “It was actually very fulfilling to take battered pieces, some of which were in boxes and broken into 40 or so pieces, and bring them back to life,” he recalls. “It could be a horse, rooster, lion, tiger, ostrich, alligator, rhino, hippo, donkey, giraffe … when it was done it was so completely satisfying, as these pieces are a part of Americana.
“But they were still not my art. So I started having this itch to carve my own carousel piece, a menagerie piece that had never been done before. Our Sally, an American Pit Bull Terrier, was the perfect subject. She had muscles that were begging to be sculpted, so she became my first subject.”
Perhaps the most eloquent testament to Racer’s talent for carving canines comes from critics who can’t talk. When Sally’s portrait was complete, Racer observed what he proudly calls “the sniff test” in action. “Once a piece is done I set it on the floor for my dogs to happen upon it when they next come in the room,” he says. “It’s the best compliment when they sniff the butt!” Pretty Sally’s reaction to her carved likeness went like this: “The butt sniff, then she walked away like she hadn’t been fooled. Pit Bull pride,” Racer adds with a laugh.
Racer knows something about Pit Bull pride: He’s the CFO and co-founder of BAD RAP, the famed pro-Pit rescue and rehab group in California. So, does putting Pit Bulls on an artistic pedestal help change negative perceptions about these wonderful but too often maligned dogs? “I would like to think that is true, and believe presenting anything in a positive light consistently can help change negative stereotypes,” he says.
Of all the dogs whose likenesses he’s carved, the most challenging, Racer remembers, was “definitely a Basenji named Ida Mae from Chicago. I am surrounded by all these fat-head dogs all day and have carved enough of them that it comes much easier. And we’ve had a couple of Husky-Shepherd mixes for the last 16 years too, so capturing the Malamute mix on my site was not too difficult.
“But that delicate little female Basenji was a lesson in patience. Her features are the antithesis of those seen in a Bulldog: a feminine little fox compared to a blocky-headed beast. Male artists often have a difficult time softening features, just as women artists often have a hard time making male figures more masculine. A favorite instructor in college had that point of view, and I believe it is true.”
Racer has drawn inspiration from some big names in the art history pantheon, as well as an artist who, like Sally the Pit Bull, is much closer to home: “Rockwell Kent and Tamara de Lempicka for their design sense, Maxfield Parrish for his color sense in glazing transparent tones in multiple layers, and my wife Donna Reynolds [BAD RAP co-founder and executive director] for her sense of simplicity in composition — she taught me as much as anyone.”
Clients commission carved canine portraits for themselves as well as for their children; something about carousel art kindles the kid-like imagination in us all. “Mostly the carvings are for the adults, but I have had a couple that wanted them for their children to be able to use, so I just add a couple more layers of varnish,” Racer says. “I even did some touch-up on one of them about a year ago and it didn’t bother me at all to see some wear on it, knowing that it was being enjoyed as a real rocker.”
Racer is often asked if he ever has exhibitions. “It’s quite difficult for me to have an exhibition with very many pieces,” he says, “since my work is all done on commission.” Depending on its complexity, one piece can take anywhere from 375 to more than 700 hours to complete.
“After working on a piece for hundreds of hours, I put on the final coat of varnish, photograph it, and then quickly ship it to my client, who has usually been waiting for it far too long,” he says. “I was able to borrow three local pieces along with my Pit Bull rocker for the grand reopening of LA Dogworks after a tragic fire the year before. It was really fun to see four of my pieces in one place. I put them around the room in a circle for the carousel feel, and they received a warm response, but that’s as many as I’ve been able to gather for any period of time.
“I’ll let you know if I’m ever able to do a real opening. The Oakland Museum might be just the right place!”
In the meantime, a carousel entirely populated by Racer’s carved dogs is definitely a dream goal. “It could one day be a reality,” the artist allows. “It would have to be a small carousel, with maybe eight to 12 pieces on it. I have the patterns for all of the dogs that I’ve carved, so it would not be like starting from scratch if I found [an entity] with the funds to commission such a project.”
Until then, he’s considering branching out into dog busts, which he says would take less time and be more affordable.
To learn more about Tim Racer’s art, visit his Web site.