Ken Means is a master woodcarver, a painter, a bronze artist, and a creator of authentic Pacific Northwest Indian masks. His career success as an artist spans more than 60 years, and today he is respected as a maker of highly detailed carousel animals. Ken considers himself part of a lost art of carvers bringing such characters to life for children and adults to enjoy.
Born in the Los Angeles area, Ken spent his time as a child tracing and copying Disney cartoons. This is how he learned how to draw. He also enjoyed building complex wooden model airplanes, which was a common activity of that era. Ken was inspired by his father, a man who loved to paint vivid desert scenes before his paralysis from serving in WWII. Outside of school or his own creative pastimes, he enjoyed riding the carousel at Lincoln Park. Little did he know that all of these experiences would become part of his creative future.
One of Ken’s first major artistic accomplishments happened when he was a teen. He was approached to create the illustrations of sports cars for a novel called “Thunder Road,” a book about the world of racing. This was a big deal to Ken and gave him a serious confidence boost to try other things.
Following his high school graduation, Ken gained clarity in his career after attending the Laguna Beach Annual Art Festival. Still going on today, this festival has brought artists together from all over the world since 1927. Seeing the quality and selling prices of the art at this event, Ken was motivated to learn how to paint. For his 19th birthday, his parents bought him some oil paints and brushes to help him get started in his new direction as an artist. Ken recalls,
“I painted furiously every single day for a couple of years. I would get my paints from the trash can of a guy who painted cars because I didn’t have any money. At the end of every day, I would collect the empty gallon cans, scraping out the residue at the bottom and putting that into jars so I could paint my art.”
Since he had no money, Ken would paint on cardboard boxes to practice different techniques. While teaching himself how to paint, Ken also started learning how to carve in order to bring in money. He would sculpt decor pieces of Spanish ships and American eagle heads out of redwood, embellishing them with stressed metal for an antiqued effect. On the weekends, he would join other artists on the streets of Rodeo Road in LA. There, he would sell his art in order to make a living.
Eventually, Ken was able to get hired by a billboard company painting advertisements. There he learned how to do lettering, patterns, and to “pounce.” The early days of painting billboards required using a device called a “pounce wheel” to create perforated lined patterns. These lined patterns were then filled with chalk to generate outlines of the desired subject that could then be painted as larger-than-life images with oil paints.
Ken’s experience working with the billboard company helped expand his growth as a painter. His work led to opportunities to paint backdrops, murals, and even movie sets in and around Hollywood. He worked as a painter with the Pasadena Playhouse, the Hollywood Wax Museum, and on the production crew of the 1966 Steve McQueen film “The Sand Pebbles.”
One Christmas—when Ken and his family were trying to save money—Ken’s wife Betty asked him to make their daughters a rocking horse. Betty wanted something that resembled the old carousel horses Ken grew up riding. Every night for a month, Ken would cut, carve, and paint after the kids were put to bed.
His labors paid off. On Christmas Day, his daughters discovered their gift, which they immediately loved. The beauty of this rocking horse made it the talk of the entire neighborhood. Both kids and parents alike were so enamored with the horse, they began telling their friends about it.
The popularity of this initial horse resulted in people reaching out for him to fix their broken carousel animals. There weren’t any books available to Ken on how to repair these animals. So, once again he relied on his own skills, experimenting with different restoration and carving techniques. After developing these skills, Ken became the “go-to” carousel repair person in his community.
Ken’s reputation as an artist grew to earn him the title of “master.” A close friend suggested that he apply for an accreditation program in the area that was being offered to artists by California’s Governor Jerry Brown. This program offered experienced professional artists who lacked the educational requirements the opportunity to teach at local art colleges. Ken entered the program, gaining his teaching credentials. He was then able to work as a college art instructor for the Pasadena City College, and later the prestigious Otis Institute in LA.
While Ken loved teaching, he was tired of living in LA. What’s more, his father had died, and his mother couldn’t sell her house in Oregon. After quitting, Ken and his wife bought his mother’s house and moved to Myrtle Point, Oregon. Ken still wanted to teach. He set up his own private woodcarving school in a three-story building. There, Ken taught how to carve carousel animals and Pacific Northwest Indian masks.
For 24 years, students came from around the globe to attend the three-week workshops Ken offered. The school included a showroom where his carved carousel animals were showcased. There was also a workshop residence for students to stay in, as well as a dedicated basement space for the woodcarving courses. The parking lot allowed students to park their campers if the upstairs housing amenities were full. His workshops immersed his students into deep creative concentration without the distractions of phone calls or TV. It demanded a strict regimen of commitment beginning each day at 6 a.m. This policy often inspired students to work late into the night.
Many of his student friendships forged from those workshops are still strong today. Ken’s desire has always been to pass down the forgotten art of carousel wood carving in hopes to keep the craft going.
Despite his success, Ken still feels like he has a lot to learn. He explains,
“I enjoyed teaching others how to carve. It’s like everything else in life: It’s a learning process, and it takes time. The important thing is to never give up. I hope to be a good carver someday. I’m not there yet. I have a long way to go, and I am running out of time.”
Ken still paints, carves masks, and does the occasional commission. But these days, it is his carousel animals that get all of the attention. For years, Ken has been building his own carousel. As the traditional carousel becomes harder to find with a new generation of amusement park rides, Ken wants to honor the historical legacy of the merry-go-rounds of the past.
In 2019, Ken and his wife came to Nashville. He had already wanted to be closer to his grandkids but was prompted to relocate after his daughter rented studio space at The Factory in Franklin (Franklin, TN).
There, most of the carousel animals can be seen through the workshop’s windows. The ride’s many parts feature a menagerie of beasts, including 11 stationary animals, 20 moving animals, and two chariots (one wheelchair compatible). The carousel will play music courtesy of a replica Wurlitzer band organ, for which his wife created most of the cabinetry and stained glass housing. This one-of-a-kind organ will feature seven different instruments for the music.
At the time of writing, Ken still had a few animals left to complete. He shares,
“The reason I started making my carousel was partially because of my children but also because when you go to an art gallery or museum you can’t touch anything, and you can’t take pictures. I want to create something that people can enjoy for at least 100 years!”
Each animal Ken carves is developed as a character and he starts every piece by first drawing the rough idea for the carousel animal. This initial image is something that will inspire him, but not anchor him to a particular detail. After he develops the personality of the animal, he begins the process of sculpting.
Every piece is created in sections, as opposed to one big chunk. Through the process of “coffin box construction,” Ken starts with a central box that will hold the other pieces of the animal. The head, legs, and everything else are all connected via this hollow, wooden box.
Though it starts out as an empty wooden frame, Ken shares with our readers that this doesn’t stay empty for long. It will eventually hold a time capsule, containing a secret item of personal or historical value to Ken! This gift-within-a-gift is a reminder to all of those who ride the carousel that each animal comes from a particular moment in time and that every moment is momentous.
Once the central box is created, each piece gets a rough carving to flesh out a very basic shape. Just like his days with the pounce wheel, Ken starts with an outline before adding the finishing flourishes. After the rough carving of the sections is completed, they are glued into place and left to dry. Next, Ken carves and sands the different parts of the animal until he is happy with its final development. Then, Ken primes the paint mounts the animal on a stand, and paints the finished pieces. The process can take weeks to months to complete depending on the size and when he feels they are up to his expectations.
Retirement has never crossed Ken’s mind as an artist. He enjoys the excitement kids have when seeing his animals, reminding him of his own childhood memories and that drives him to keep working on this legacy that will outlive him over time.
“I love watching kids come in with excitement while touching all of the animals. I get a lot of older people to come in and share their fond memories of riding the carousel as a kid. That’s why I love building this carousel!” Ken explains.
Here is our podcast interview for The Creative Push.
You can watch Ken’s video interview below!
You can see more photos from the interview at Sheri Oneal Photography.
Listen to Ken’s story on The Creative Push podcast below!
There are more pictures of Ken on my SOP site!
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