More musing than amusing: Stripped-down merry-go-round a revealing ride

  • Fanelli pushes her vintage carousel last Tuesday that she installed in the UMass Studio Arts Building. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathryn Fanelli stands on a vintage carousel last Tuesday that she installed in the Studio Arts Building at the University of Massachusetts for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathryn Fanelli poses on a vintage carousel last Tuesday that she installed in the Studio Arts Building at the University of Massachusetts for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathryn Fanelli stands inside a vintage carousel last Tuesday that she installed in the Studio Arts Building at the University of Massachusetts for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathryn Fanelli stands at the center of a vintage carousel last Tuesday that she installed in the Studio Arts Building at the University of Massachusetts for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathryn Fanelli stands inside a vintage carousel last Tuesday, that she installed in the Studio Arts Building at the University of Massachusetts for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathryn Fanelli stands beside a vintage carousel last Tuesday that she installed in the Studio Arts Building at the University of Massachusetts for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass grad student Kathryn Fanelli stands on her vintage carousel last Tuesday. She installed it in the Studio Arts Building at UMass for her MFA thesis exhibition titled “The Passing Show.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2020 10:52:06 AM

At the Studio Arts Building on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s campus Wednesday, passersby turned their gaze toward an unusual sight in the expansive second-floor window — a full-size antique merry-go-round, sometimes lit up and spinning in the mostly empty building.

The curious stares are just what artist Kathy Fanelli hoped for when she installed the carousel, which she described as “a large-scale, sculptural project that challenges and disrupts what we accept.”

“Merry-go-rounds are a beloved icon. Everyone loves a painted carousel … it’s part of our culture,” said Fanelli, who embarked upon the project for her master’s of fine arts thesis at UMass.

Fanelli’s merry-go-round is not the typical carousel seen at fairs or amusement parks. Instead of a brightly painted spectacle accompanied by upbeat music, the 1924 antique ride has been stripped down to its bare essentials, such as silvery aluminum horses, bare wood paneling, mirrors and metal machinery. In place of music, the metallic creaks of the merry-go-round’s inner mechanical apparatus accompany its spinning.

“I really wanted to reimagine a merry-go-round completely,” Fanelli said, “and I wanted to strip it and remove all of the paint and trappings, and the traditional things we associate with a merry-go-round, which are about illusion.”

Fanelli knows merry-go-rounds better than most people. Growing up, she spent seven months out of each year moving about the Northeast with her father’s traveling carnival company, Fanelli Amusements. But Fanelli parted with the carnival to pursue art, and until her thesis project, she did not incorporate its imagery into her work, describing her relationship with the carnival as “too close” and “commercial.”

But approaching the project, Fanelli drew connections between the merry-go-round and other artistic and spiritual motifs that catch her interest, such as circles, meditation and Buddhist principles centered on illusion and hindrances.

Fanelli acquired the carousel from the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Conn., which initially offered the rundown merry-go-round to her father. Her family did not have use for it, Fanelli said, as it was in pieces, caked in decades of paint, and “looked like junk” by the time she began working with it. 

Fanelli would spend the next year and four months stripping away paint, polishing the horses, rewiring a nearly century-old electrical system, and sanding the wooden surfaces, among other tasks, sometimes with assistance from interns. Much of the work required skills that Fanelli had to learn for the first time, such as wiring, welding, woodworking and lasering. 

The experience was “liberating, coming in and not knowing any of that, and just doing it,” Fanelli recalled.

Stripping the merry-go-round down to its skeleton also creates a somewhat “ghostly” effect, she said.

“You can see the parts of the merry-go-round that actually make it turn,” she noted. “They’re not covered up. I wanted all of that exposed so you can see the truth — you can see how it works.”

For Fanelli, this transparency is healthy, and a symbol of hope for a future based in truth.

The project also aims to destabilize an institutional space, she said. 

“It’s interrupting that premise and suggesting that if you throw a merry-go-round in the middle of an institution, you destabilize it,” Fanelli said. “It’s no longer a place you pass through. There’s a merry-go-round in it, it’s deconstructed, it’s reimagined and it doesn’t belong there, so it disrupts the norm of the institution.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project did not go quite as planned. The merry-go-round is not currently hooked up to a motor and must be spun by hand, which activates its lighting and the jumping motion of its horses. And ideally, members of the public would be able to come into the building to view and ride the merry-go-round. 

Instead, Fanelli has only been able to show it to groups of up to five people at a time, and most of the public viewing is limited to those who walk or drive by the Fine Arts Center. Eventually, Fanelli hopes to move the merry-go-round to a museum.

But amid the rapid changes and tension in today’s world, Fanelli says that that project ultimately asks how art projects can assist in healing. 

“I do believe everything we need we already have, and what needs to change is the internal inventory,” Fanelli said. “I think what needs to change is on the inside, so this is not something I made so much as something I reimagined.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of Fanelli’s art installation.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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