Greenfield Village carousel gets artist's touch

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Some figures have been removed from the historic carousel at Dearborn's Greenfield Village for restoration.

Julie Fournier is pacing herself. The historic Greenfield Village carousel opens back up for business April 13, and before then the Detroit artist's got a lot of distressed animals that need some love. 

"By opening day," she said on a chilly recent Monday, "I will have painted every nick and scratch." 

The carousel menagerie Fournier's tending includes, among other beasts, armored horses, hop-toads, roosters, sea monsters, zebras, cats, and reindeer -- all meticulously painted and gleaming, once Fournier has her way with them.  

Bundled up and wearing fingerless knit gloves, she's carefully applying enamel paint to a scraped saddle. 

"They sell 200,000 tickets a year to this," Fournier explained. "That's two hands and two feet on either side, sometimes with dirt on the shoes or rings on the fingers. You get a lot of wear -- which in a way," she added, "is fantastic. Some carousels you can't even touch." 

A frog and horse race one another on the historic 1913 carousel at The Henry Ford.

For the record, Fournier also does dental restoration on these beasts, at least for those whose mouths are wide open. 

The merry-go-round in question is a 1913 Herschell-Spillman carousel, produced by the long-vanished company in Tonawanda, New York.

Where this particular model with its 48 animals started life is uncertain, but from 1923-1961 it delighted kids of all ages in Spokane, Washington, before its eventual move to Dearborn.

Has Fournier ever ridden it? 

"Of course," she said, taking a break from her brushstrokes. "It hearkens back to a different era. It's just pure fun."

Fournier, ever the perfectionist, casts a gimlet eye at the saddle she's been treating. "I think this horse," she said, "is done." 

Everyone knows making a living as a full-time artist is tough as the dickens, with the unlucky working coffeeshops or offices to support their creative fix. 

Where necessary, the wooden animals on Greenfield Village's carousel get a little dental work from the artist.

Fournier -- her website is -- is one of the fortunate ones. Not only do her contemporary realist paintings appear regularly -- and sell -- in local shows, most recently at Detroit's Motor City Brewery, but her supplemental employment is both artistic and really kind of a hoot. 

In addition to restoring 106-year-old wooden animals, Fournier can also lay down wicked pin stripes on your favorite hot rod. 

"Car culture pays better than fine art," she said with a laugh. "Lucky for me, people love to personalize their cars."

Fournier's been working off and on at The Henry Ford for seven years. 

"I started here painting the 1897 Baldwin, full-sized locomotive," she said, "both the tender tank and then the engine. Back in 2012, I think."

The work has always been more delight than obligation.

"It's very fun," she said. "And this year they’ve allowed me free rein. I’m a trusted contractor now."

Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, brandishes his trident on one of the bench-seats on the carousel.

There was a time when Fournier just copied what her predecessor, the late restoration artist Tony Orlando, had done. But now she's aiming for precise historical accuracy. 

"This year I’m taking my six years of research and trying to restore the original 1913 style," she said, "like you’d walked back in time."

Company color records have long since disappeared. But Fournier discovered an artist who restored a Herschell-Spillman carousel in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,  and documented the original hues. 

"That artist put his spectrum of colors on a PDF," she said, gratitude in her voice. 

Still, there's a lot of guesswork and experimentation in precisely matching the color surrounding a scuffed patch. For example, her predecessor's whites aren't just off-the-shelf, and Fournier's had to spend hours zeroing in on the shade. 

"If you mix maroon with green and imitation gold," she explained, "you get his white." Crazy as it sounds, this sort of counter-intuitive recipe isn't limited to white. 

"He also took the most vibrant colors, Kansas City teal and orange," Fournier said, "and mixed them to get gray. The result is a perfect color combination, even if most people wouldn't do it that way."

Still, she disapproves of some earlier restoration choices. 

"For instance, someone painted over the silver leaf on this seahorse," Fournier said with barely suppressed indignation. "Silver leaf is underneath both the green and gold here. One of these days," she added, "I’m going to strip it all down and re-leaf it."

Fournier sighed. "It would have been silver leaf with green, watery effects," she said. "It would have been breathtaking. I mean, it’s pretty now. But not original."

Reaching back for historical accuracy, she's also added black shadows to blankets that were formerly solid, flat colors, to give them a little depth, and changed feathers in an Indian headdress to white, so they stand out against the black hair.

Elaborately designed stationary seats on Greenfield Village's carousel are also undergoing restoration.

In one case, someone painted varnish over silver leaf which, while still visible, had matured into a golden tone over the years. 

Fournier reapplied silver leaf in one small area, and then had to experiment with clear coats to shift the color to gold.

"I finally succeeded," she said, and you can tell this is a point of some pride for the artist. "You can't tell where my work meets the original."

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 


Greenfield Village 2019 Opening 

April 13

9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

$28 - adults, $25.25 - seniors, $21 kids 5-11. Members enter free. 

(313) 982-6001