Tribute to Carousel Artist Nina Fraley – 1927-2013

Ground-breaking-carousel-artist-nina-fraley

Peers, Rol and Jo Summit; son, Tobin; and friend and student, Lise Lipeman, pay tribute to Ground Breaking Carousel Preservationist and Restoration Artist, Nina Fraley – 1927-2013.

Nina Fraley, left, with artist protegees and friends, Lise Liepman and Pam Hessey in the spring of 1989 at a banquet hosted by Larry Freels for the opening of his San Francisco Carousel Museum M.C. Illions show. Photo courtesy of the Rol & Jo Summit.

Nina Fraley, left, with artist protegees and friends, Lise Liepman and Pam Hessey in the spring of 1989 at a banquet hosted by Larry Freels for the opening of his San Francisco Carousel Museum M.C. Illions show. Photo courtesy of the Rol & Jo Summit.

 

 

 

By Rol & Jo Summit
Reprinted from The Carousel News & Trader, Nov./Dec. 2013

The carousel community has lost yet another of its founding matriarchs. And we have lost a cherished friend. Scarcely more than a year after Marianne Stevens left us, Nina Fraley passed away on October 22 after several years of declining health. Unlike the other leaders in the carousel revolution, who explored the culture in retrospect, Nina was born into the outdoor amusement Industry. Her father, Carl Phare, was a noted designer and builder of roller coasters. As a toddler, she moved into the perimeter of Seattle’s Playland Park, taken over by her family when the previous owner defaulted on the contract for the new Phare coaster. She grew up immersed within the sights and sounds and aromas of the family amusement park, ultimately sharing the management of her beloved Dentzel menagerie merry-go-round with her new husband, Maurice. Tobin, the first of their three children, grew up on his grandfather’s knee and had the run of the park. The Funhouse was his childhood playhouse until he graduated to “souping-up” the electric cars of the Redbug ride for clandestine midnight races with his buddies.

When Nina and Maurice opened an art gallery in Berkeley, California, they called it the Redbug Workshop, and when they inherited the carousel in the early sixties, the Redbug became the Bay Area mother lode of carousel art. Nina and Maurice didn’t just sell carousel animals, they researched their backgrounds, restored their substance and established the state-of-the-art of graceful decoration. Their customers became their dear friends within an expanding community of dedicated carousel aficionados. They celebrated together with pot-lucks, masquerades and holiday galas. They pooled their talents and energies to mount shows in banks and other public buildings, all inspired by Nina’s mission to publicize and venerate the under-rated glory of the carousel. Nina’s formative pebbles in the Playland centerpiece, Bitter Lake, created a ripple effect across the country that still enhances the landscape of the carousel world.

It is Nina who coined language to better describe the emerging fine points of detail in carousel figures like, Romance Side, and Country Fair Style.

She encouraged Larry Freels to establish the world’s first Carousel Museum, in San Francisco. Her role there as restoration decorator, and her work with Tobin to establish his restoration studio, inspired an emerging generation of specialty painters, most notably Lise Liepman and Pam Hessey. The studio established professional status for such protegees and offered an unprecedented renewal resource for collectors with worn and faded treasures. Tobin’s iconic signature line of miniatures and ornaments gave pleasure to thousands of new collectors, and his books enlightened as many more.

Maurice and Nina Fraley, right, with Jo Summit, ca. 1884 at a [John] Daniels Den gathering. Photo courtesy of Rol & Jo Summit.

Maurice and Nina Fraley, right, with Jo Summit, ca. 1884 at a [John] Daniels Den gathering. Photo courtesy of Rol & Jo Summit.

NCR Founding and On to Asilomar
Nina and Maurice were founding members and enthusiastic supporters of the NCA – National Carousel Association (originally, NCR – National Carousel Roundtable). They distinguished themselves as congenial champions of the right to supply collectors with carousel artifacts, at the risk of being stigmatized as a threat to operating carousels.

Nina served as an elected NCR director and member of the Executive Committee for 1975 through 1977. She sponsored the very ambitious, premier West Coast convention in Santa Clara, October 22-24, 1976. Her program was designed for enlightenment and entertainment. It featured a C.W. Parker “Kansas Country Fair” theme, workshops on restoration, and a show in the Triton Museum of San Jose. The banquet offered Nina-created souvenir napkins and a spirited troupe of square dancers including Lise Liepman and Tobin.

That fourth convention proved to be the last peaceful gathering of the NCR. The Board of Directors had become divided over the proposed censure of a member/collector who had broken up an operable carousel. Nina offered the defense that saving individual carvings from destructive neglect was a legitimate form of conservation. Her voting message to fellow directors begged for a reasonable compromise: “Let’s get on with the job of educating the public to the value of the heritage of wooden carousels, both as functioning machines and as art”.

Nina chose not to attend the divisive fifth conference in Atlantic City (September 16-19, 1977) which triggered the establishment of the rival American Carousel Society (ACS). She and Maurice were among the 25 NCA members who announced their resignation in January, 1978, via a letter to the membership complaining of “… increasing hostility directed towards collectors (and) failure to recognize that collectors are also conservationists … “.

One of Nina’s most outstanding legacies is her successful effort to restore the cordial spirit that had engendered the founding of the original organization. In less than three months after announcing her NCA resignation, she had mailed invitations to her Bay Area colleagues and other friends to come together into a demilitarized refuge. She offered yet another show, American Carousel Art, at the Monterrey Peninsula Museum of Art in conjunction with Carousel West, “A two day Collector’s Conference at Asilomar Conference Grounds in nearby Pacific Grove, California, for the weekend of June 23-25, 1978”.

As further promised in the mimeographed invitation, “Our program at Asilomar, while including a generous portion of slide shows and restoration information, is aimed at preserving an open forum to encourage the greatest possible exchange of ideas and to expand friendships and ties. … A place to relax and enjoy”.

That promise has been fulfilled annually in each of the 34 subsequent meetings of Carousel West at Asilomar. We have learned together, dined together, partied together. We have celebrated together and mourned together in the natural progression of births and unions, divorces and deaths. There is no need to state the underlying premises of civility and respect; they are self-fulfilling in the enduring climate of mutual interests and affectionate connection.

Nina Fraley has lived and died in the celebration of carousel art. May her spirit live on as a prevailing force for enlightenment, encouragement and peace within the world of the carousel!

In 1977 the Tilden Park carousel ownership transferred from the Davis family to the East Bay Regional Parks District. Maurice and Nina Fraley completed a full restoration of the Herschell-Spillman menagerie figures. The photo above is from a cover story on the Tilden Park carousel restoration in “Americana” magazine, September/October 1979.

In 1977 the Tilden Park carousel ownership transferred from the Davis family to the East Bay Regional Parks District. Maurice and Nina Fraley completed a full restoration of the Herschell-Spillman menagerie figures. The photo above is from a cover story on the Tilden Park carousel restoration in “Americana” magazine, September/October 1979.

The Best of All Possible Mothers…

By Tobin Fraley

Obituaries are odd. One attempts to distill however many years into a few words. Yet when you start, you realize it is an impossible task, so you touch the surface, the high points and do your best to capture some kind of essence.

So it is with my mother, Nina Fraley. She lived a complex life and struggled for a good part of it. But she was also an extraordinary person who gave so much to so many and in particular she gave to her family. My brother Carl, my sister Jenny and I were extremely lucky to have been born to such a woman.

Most people reading the CN&T will remember her contribution to the carousel world. The research, the magnificent paint jobs, the creative presentations and the tenacity to start what she felt was an organization that was inclusive to anyone who wanted to participate. She was certainly passionate about her work, even though there were times some people would wait for years to have her paint a figure (and perhaps there are people who are still waiting).

But to a few, including our family, the carousel world was only a small portion of her life. Some may remember the Christmas parties at the Redbug where Nina developed her own stage version of A Christmas Carol and parceled out the roles to various friends. Basil Johns was always Scrooge since he was the least Scrooge-like person she knew. I was young Scrooge, which was probably a bit of type casting. She made paper maché Punch & Judy puppets for an annual show in Seattle. The performances were always packed with children and adults who would roar with laughter at the Nina scripted antics of those popular characters. The unfinished children’s stories that floated around in her head were endless and her abilities as an illustrator were nothing short of astounding.

After I left California, I would call her every Thanksgiving to hear a refresher course on the world’s most amazing turkey dressing and I kick myself for not writing down her recipe for macaroni salad. She taught pottery at the art gallery in Berkeley and she had an extraordinary eye for design that could be seen in the way the American Carousel Museum had been set up.

But I can also add in the debilitating migraines, her overwhelming lack of self-confidence, her inability to know how much she was loved and you have that complex person I spoke of earlier. One of my greatest frustrations in life was my own inability to help her understand her amazing talents, but as much as all of the family tried, it was too much of an uphill battle. In the end, I doubt if any of us, including Maurice, my brother, sister or Nicole would have traded her for a different person. On the good days I used to tell her that she was the best of all possible mothers. I still think that.

Three newly restored horses from the 1927 Illions Supreme. Paint and gold leaf by Lise Liepman for restorer, Brass Ring Carousel Company.

Three newly restored horses from the 1927 Illions Supreme. Paint and gold leaf by Lise Liepman for restorer, Brass Ring Carousel Company.

The Best of All Possible Mentors…

By Lise Liepman

Great chance meetings happen that change the course of life, and we don’t even notice that our life’s path has shifted. This is what happened when I met Nina Fraley. In 1976, I was dating the Fraleys’ son, Tobin, and was studying art at UC Berkeley. When I met Nina, I knew I had found a kindred spirit, a mentor, and a friend. She took me under her wing as an apprentice – an incredibly huge gesture of kindness and support that was a little lost on my young, uncertain, unaware self. Nina gave me a gift of art, of carousel painting, which put me on a life path undreamed of, which still brings rewards for a creative life beyond my imaginings.

Nina’s love of life, of a good story, of gentle laughter, and then bigger silly laughter was a constant joy to be around and gave me many lessons on how to be in the world. How much laughter we shared through the years – as she taught me about art in a practical sense, teachings more useful than what I was learning at school. The Fraleys introduced me to the rich and diverse community of carousel enthusiasts, collectors, dealers, restorers, and historians, many of whom have stayed my friends throughout these long years. Who would have, could have, imagined us getting old together, still immersed in the simple world of the carousel.

Go gently, Nina, with a smile on your lips and peace in your heart, confident that you left the world a better place for your presence and your sensitive, beautiful art. Thank you for your loving generosity in setting my young artistic self on a wonderful life journey.