Ken Means has been carving his legacy for 30 years. Now, it’s about to come to life at The Factory at Franklin in the form of a carousel full of Means’ menagerie of animals, chiseled from wood and painted from his imagination.
Means started his career as a truck driver, but art was what occupied his mind during long hours on the road. As a young man, he took classes at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and ultimately went to work there. He taught adult education in the evenings, running the wood shop and the bronze foundry on campus.
When Ken and his wife, Betty, settled in Coos County, Oregon, he took an interest in the Native American artwork of the Pacific Northwest, and he studied with native populations and taught their children. But it was his own children who planted the seed of an idea that would take the next three decades to manifest.
“I carved a horse as a Christmas present for my kids when they were little, 28 years ago,” he explains. “They had a ball on it, and it just kept going. All artists want to leave something behind, but I didn’t want to create art that sat somewhere collecting dust, that people couldn’t touch.”
Means had first found carving as a way to add more dimension to his paintings. He’d crafted pieces for Hollywood and the famous Knott’s Berry Farm theme park, so his wheels had been turning. The dream became a carousel as more figures came to mind—and eventually to reality—over the years. He launched a school where art students would imagine fanciful figures, carve them with gouges and chisels from basswood, and then finish them with spectacular paint schemes. Means would work alongside them.
Today, there are 32 characters in total, spanning the animal kingdom and delving into the fantasy world of centaurs, dragons and unicorns. Each is inspired by a children’s fable, and all are bubbling with character and personality. Two chariots have been created with collapsible seats and safety features, so those who use wheelchairs or are too young or old to sit on a horse can still enjoy the experience.
“It is important to us that everyone be able to ride,” Means says. “A grandparent can bring a grandchild. That time together is so important, and we want to help make that possible.”
Betty Means, an artist in her own right, has been working on other elements of the carousel—among them the stained glass that will adorn the center “dog house” that includes the mechanical works as well as the band organ.
“You’ve got to have a band organ if you’re going to have a carousel. That’s the bottom line,” Betty says with a laugh. “You’ll be able to see the movements through the glass, as it plays seven different instruments, like a 1920s Wurlitzer.”
Together, they’ve built the cabinets and crafted the decorative and operative components that will bring the entire carousel together into a functioning landmark for generations to come. They have a lot of fun together, as they have for decades, and point out that each of the animals has a time capsule inside.
“A hundred years from now, when someone has to rebuild one of the animals, they’re going to find it,” Means says.
The carousel is slated to open in the late spring or early summer at The Factory, and the Means aren’t sure who will be more excited when it does. As more families have come across the studio in recent years, the buzz has continued to grow.
“To see the delight on faces when people walk through, especially people who remember riding a carousel, it’s just such wonderful memories, and there are more to be made,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do for an artist. For me.”