Bruce White was never really fascinated with carousels. He wasn't even a huge fan of carnivals or fairs.
So becoming the sculptor who creates the molds for many modern carousel animals was mostly an accident. But the self-taught artist loves putting together his creations.In his studio, he has a picture of a little girl riding on one of his carousel animals.
Underneath the picture is written: "The reason I do what I do."
"When I can go to a park or something like that and see a kid riding on one of my animals, that's why I do it," he said. "I feel like I've done something worthwhile, I'm doing something to enrich someone else's life."
White, 41, started carving while a Navy medic, making plaques for retirements and going-away parties. Soon people were calling him with orders.
His fate was sealed after he was transferred from Tennessee to Japan, where his wife entered two of his wood carvings - a dragon and a globe - in a contest.
When he went to pick up his work - dressed in a T-shirt and sandals - he discovered a formal reception in which he was declared a contest winner. When his picture appeared in the local paper, his commanding officer suggested he may want to quit the Navy and turn his hobby into a full-time career.
So White returned to the United States in 1986 and settled in Vero Beach, Fla. He started working for Wonder Toys, making the wooden carvings used for molds for the child-size plastic horses that sit on springs attached to metal frames. He also made carousel horses for a company owned by Wonder Toys' parent company, Miami-based Rotocast International Inc.
White eventually felt he could make more money on his own and decided to start his own business.
A past resident of Coldwater, Kan., White looked for a small town in southwest Kansas where he could buy a home. He opened White's Carousels Inc. in Kinsley and began carving horses for Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar, a national restaurant chain, using the wooden sculptures to make molds that could produce lightweight, decorative plastic carousel horses.
He also makes carousel animals for Wichita-based Chance Industries, the nation's largest manufacturer of portable amusement rides. He has created a line of animals representing endangered species, including a gorilla, leopard, rhinoceros and elephant.
Most recently, Chance hired him to work on a carousel for San Jose, Calif., that features an eagle, hummingbird, coyote, salmon and shark. White also makes carousel animals for people who want to decorate their homes or build their own carousels.
A small carved wooden animal that would sit on a table costs about $1,000, while a full-sized figure costs $2,500 or more. A lightweight, plastic mold of a full-size carousel animal is $1,200 to $1,500.
White often uses pictures in National Geographic magazine as inspiration, carving the rough fur of a coyote into the wood or re-creating the strong wings of an eagle frozen in flight. The hardest part often is carving an animal that is realistic but can still carry a rider and fit on a carousel.
"He's very attentive to details," said Mike Meister, Chance's design director who has worked with White for nearly two years. "He strives for realism in everything he does."
Although White is dedicated to his work, he also is open to suggestions, Meister said. The two have changed the design of the eagle several times to make it easier for children to climb up on the bird without getting hung up on its giant wings.
It takes White anywhere from one to two weeks to carve a wooden carousel animal, depending on how intricate and complicated the design. The plastic reproductions take about four hours to make.
White's home in Kinsley is easy to spot with its carousel horses decorating the lawn. He has five children, ages 14 to 20. One of his daughters, 19-year-old Jessica, is an artist who sometimes helps paint carousel animals.
White and his four employees make an average about 22 plastic animals a month. They have made more than 1,000 plastic carousel horses for Applebee's in the past three years.
Two of the employees make molds from the wooden carvings, then use those molds to make the plastic versions of the carved animals. One person paints most of the carousel animals before they are sent out, and White also has a full-time marketing representative.
Carving carousel animals had nearly become a lost art, but there are now a handful of artists devoted to it, White said.
"Up until about the 1980s, there was basically nobody doing it," he said. "There is getting to be a renewed interest in carousels. I guess it's just nostalgic."
Nostalgic or no, White admits that the carousel isn't his favorite ride at the fair.
"I like the wild rides," he said.