As the carousel spins, he carves

Carousel craftsman Brent White and “Beatrice” in the Kids Discovery Museum.  - Julie Busch photo
Carousel craftsman Brent White and “Beatrice” in the Kids Discovery Museum.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

Brent White turns out everything from horses to butterflies.

In Brent White’s line of work, what goes around comes around. And it’s a delight every time.

From his home in Poulsbo, the retired Navy officer carves and casts carousel figures. His work is on display in zoos, theme parks and private homes around the world, attached to merry-go-rounds or displayed as free-standing art.

Thanks to his donation of “Beatrice the Butterfly” to the Kids Discovery Museum, Bainbridge residents can enjoy his artistry as well.

“I really like doing things for the kids museum. That’s what excites me,” White said. “To bring a smile to a child, that’s my reward.”

The reason Beatrice is in Bainbridge and not with the 20 other carousel creatures White and his identical twin, Bruce, crafted for the Indianapolis Zoo is “we forgot to put Rebar in the wings.”

“They have to be durable enough for kids to climb on,” Brent White said. “We were ready to paint and the wing broke off. I threw it aside. Everything that has wings is a problem on a carousel because it takes up so much space.”

Brent and Bruce – who got him into the animal carving business – finished the 20 carousel figures in six months. In that span they did wood carvings for the eight originals, including a garden bench with birds of paradise that a wheelchair can tuck into, and cast and painted all of them. That pace is one Brent White doesn’t care to repeat.

An art student working with White convinced him to restore Beatrice, which is the very first carousel figure he cast on his own. White knew he wanted to place Beatrice where children could enjoy her, but he didn’t know where.

One day he had an epiphany heading to lunch at the Big Star diner, where he noticed the kids museum. Funnily enough, White was stationed on Bainbridge Island for almost three years, where he was the comptroller at the now-defunct Northwest Dental Region command. From his Navy lodgings, he watched the museum building go up.

Installed just past the entry of the discovery museum at the official start of spring, the colorful Beatrice is a magnet for children and adults. Designed for playing on, the “somewhat fanciful creature,” as White calls her, is about 5 feet long and tall and sits atop a “carousel” base that is 6 feet in diameter. Admirers circle Beatrice, taking in her beauty, and even adult kids want to climb her.

For many years, the White brothers ran B&B Carousels, which manufactured the Applebee’s restaurant chain’s carousel horses.

Times have changed the carousel business. As White’s work attests, now there are many choices beyond horses. He still spends hours researching and sketching his ideas and carving originals from wood. But he makes molds to cast polyurethane copies, which, he said, are more durable than wood, yet so detailed they show the wood grain.

“It’s actually better than the original,” White said. “We can airbrush the flaws.”

However, he admitted, “a lot of times the charm is in the flaws.”

Bruce White got the family business rolling when he began carving rocking horses for the Wonder Toys company. When he started doing fancier horses for the art market, he called Brent to help.

“I was in the Navy at this time, which was 1987,” said Brent. “Bruce told me, “Hey, I can’t clone myself. I know you have the ability to do the Coffin Box.”

Bruce explained that technique – original carvings are hollow, hence the name – and faxed his brother a diagram for a rocker named Galloping Fury. The Applebee’s contract followed.

“The horse you see is the one he and I and our father manufactured,” White said. “The horses are in 2,000 restaurants worldwide.”

White has cast a veritable menagerie – from penguins to grizzly bears – that has found homes in such places as Australia, Thailand, Sweden, Germany and Holland, as well as Lion Country Safari in Florida and the Fresno minor league baseball park, Grizzlies Stadium.

Some fine examples of White’s mastery of his art are part of the Arena Park carousel in San Jose, Calif., where riders race to jump on a remarkably detailed salmon, a howling coyote and an astonishing hummingbird – much larger than life, of course – with a baby bird tucked under the back of the seat.

Since this was a joint project with the San Jose hockey team, White also made its mascot, a smiling shark.

White enjoys commission work as well, such as the unicorn he made for a family dentist in Bellingham. Prices vary, as works can take 80 hours to carve and “a couple hundred dollars doesn’t even buy the wood.”

“I think these things will be good for homes and gardens,” he said.

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