Joseph Lutter Carves Carousel Horses by Giving Rein to His Gifts

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

With his chest-length beard, leather hat and the gentle skill with which he guides mallet and chisel to work, Joseph Lutter is the very image of a 19th-century master craftsman. And except that he definitely lives in the here and now, that's exactly what this gifted carver of carousel horses is—and does. "Yeah, I guess it's true," Lutter, 42, says of the nearly lost art he practices 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at his rustic workshop deep in the Minnesota woods 80 miles north of Minneapolis. "There aren't many people who can pick up a craft and go back in time like this."

In the heyday of the carousel around the turn of the century, there were thousands of them whirling in the U.S. Fewer than 170 survive today. Yet memories of the carousel's charms still create such a powerful nostalgic tug that a specialized market has developed for carousel horses as folk art.

None of Lutter's originals—priced at $6,000 for a three-foot horse and $12,000 for one five feet tall—has been installed on a working carousel. Buyers "usually stick one in their living room," Lutter says, for use as a decorative accent or a centerpiece. "It's like a Steinway piano, a one-of-a-kind piece of art, a family heirloom," explains businessman Chuck La-Barge of Shorewood, Minn., who says he and his wife expect to pass on their Lutter to their son, Brady, now 4.

Remarkably, Lutter has had no formal art training and came to his craft late. He carved his first horse just two years ago and, to date, has produced fewer than 20. Yet, among only a few dozen carousel carvers currently at work in the U.S., Lutter has already gained a reputation as among the best. "There's no doubt he'll be an important part of art history in 50 years," says Minneapolis gallery owner Carol Dornisch. "People will be proud to own a Lutter horse."

Raised in a Minneapolis suburb, one of seven children of a warehouseman and his homemaker wife, Lutter once thought his purpose in life was to be a warrior. He enlisted in the Army in 1966 after high school and, after training as a mechanic, served three duty tours in Vietnam. He was also twice married and divorced and fathered daughters Lia, now 19, and Vicki, 16. It was during his final Army year that he became interested in cabinet-making and discovered a "God-given skill" for working with wood.

Then in 1981 Lutter met and married Rachel Helgesen, a Lutheran minister's daughter, now 34, and they made their home in a camper-trailer on five acres in the remote north woods. Together they eked out a meager living hawking handmade marionettes and driftwood carvings at art fairs. After reading up on carousels, Lutter carved his first horse simply as a ploy to attract customers to his booth—and it worked. Soon people were lining up three deep around his workbench to gawk and ask questions. "Everybody likes carousel horses," says Lutter. "It's a kind of fantasy world people remember from their childhood."

He carves each of his horses—no two of them alike—from Wisconsin basswood and sands it "until my fingers bleed." Then Rachel decorates the horse in bright acrylic paints to a glasslike finish. "We'd both like to go to school some time and learn what we're doing," Lutter says wryly. "But when you have to buy groceries, you learn pretty fast what looks good."

Depending on their size, each horse requires a month to two months to complete, and at that rate, what with gallery fees, material expenses and all, the Lutters' high craftsmanship isn't going to make them rich. But neither Joseph nor Rachel seems much concerned. They are doing well enough to have reached an income-tax bracket and to pay off some debts. They have completed a one-bedroom cabin and would like to start a family. Yoga, which they began studying by mail last year, has become the spiritual center of their lives. Lutter, in fact, hopes for a frugal retirement at 50, after completing perhaps 100 carousel horses altogether, to devote himself to meditation. Meanwhile, he says softly, "I'm just another Vietnam vet who's seen enough of death and destruction. I want to be happy and to do something that makes other people happy, too."

—Harriet Shapiro, Margaret Nelson in Brook Park, Minn.

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