The Tio Vivo carousel is an iconic feature of Las Fiestas de Taos.
Each July, Las Fiestas de Taos are held in honor of the town’s two patron saints, St. Anne, or Santa Ana, mother of the Virgin Mary, and St. James, or Santiago (Santo Yago) de Compostela. It is a time of tradition, with parades, a royal court, and special Masses at the local church. Vendors crowd Taos Plaza, offering merchandise and carnival food—cotton candy, caramel apples, roasted corn, and turkey legs.
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Tucked away in a corner of the plaza is a Fiesta tradition unto itself: Tio Vivo carousel, which is more than 100 years old. Now owned and operated by the Lions Club, the carousel was made in Mexico and has been a fixture at Taos Fiestas since the late 1940s. There's no cost to ride, but the Lions Club accepts donations, which go toward maintaining and preserving the carousel, as well as toward a scholarship fund.
Tio Vivo carousel has been a tradition at Taos Fiestas for more than 60 years.
Early this morning, while the plaza was still almost deserted, I visited Tio Vivo and had an opportunity to photograph the horses and to visit with two members of the Lions Club, who shared some information about this stunning example of 19th century folk art.
This appaloosa has Tio Vivo painted on either side of its neck. Its mane is carved and painted, and it has a tail of real horsehair, as do many of the carousel's horses.
The carousel used to be operated by a hand crank, and the horses were once suspended by wooden rods; now, the carousel is motorized, and metal rods are used.
Two of the more realistically painted horses. Note the metal rods. Also, both of these horses have green reflectors for eyes--a modern innovation that somehow manages not to be jarring, maybe because using available materials is true to folk-art tradition.
The horses are completely hand-carved and hand-painted. In fact, they are covered with layer upon layer of paint. Some have actual horsehair manes and tails, others have manes that are painted and/or carved, and some are adorned with yarn mops.
The blue horse has an exuberant mane and tail made from a dust mop. The fringe on the saddle pad is actual fabric fringe that has been painted over.
The red and green horse has a mane and tail of rope. Check out the fancy braiding on the tail.
Some of the horses have been replaced over the years, so you see different types of craftsmanship. Most of the horses have finely detailed faces, but some have broader, blunter features, with less defined nostrils. Each horse is unique, individually hand-carved and hand-painted.
The horse on the left is more finely detailed, while the horse on the right has a broader face and body.
As you look at the photos, you can see signs of the original workmanship; marks from the carving are sometimes visible beneath the paint. You may also notice other details, including the multiple layers of paint and places where the horses have been repaired.
This horse was repaired at one time with a metal plate; you can see the edges of the plate in the lower right corner.
Scuffs, scrapes, and age only add to the carousel's charm.
The metal rods detach from the bars overhead, so every time the carousel is set up, the pairings may be different. "Just depends on which (horses) we unwrap first," said one of the Lions Club members.
This time, the Tio Vivo horse is paired with a more primitively carved horse painted with diamonds.
Note the camels painted on the saddle pad of the black horse (detail below). They are exotic in an old-time-carnival way.
Closeup of the camel saddle pad.
The unicorn is a favorite among little girls.
The fleabit yellow horse has an abundant yarn mane and tail, as well as leather ears.
Hasta la vista, Tio Vivo. See you next year!
Text and images © 2011 by Susan Mihalic