Urban Dictionary had the definition right for this word: artist. “One who has the ability to transfer life onto any surface by the magic of brain/eye to hand coordination,” reads the top entry. This well-describes Raymond Kinman’s life and career as an artist, musician, and namely, a master woodcarver.
Ray was 21 years old in 1977, living in Tahoe with his then wife and playing shows as a professional musician, when the couple found out they were expecting their first child. He realized he needed to do something more to support his growing family and, on a whim, accepted an offer to carve a wooden sign for a friend’s
restaurant in exchange for meals there.
“Actually, the first carving wasn’t very good … It was pretty bad,” he laughed during a recent interview for Moonshine Ink.
With just a little experience in woodworking and art, and a short span making airbrushed T-shirts (“that was a thing back then,” he joked), he began down a path with the mantra of “blind faith.”
But many artists know all too well another moniker: starving artist, falling prey to the “ramen years” as droves of beautiful creations spring to life in the studio, garage, or renovated old barn never to make it into the light. Ray certainly had those days of struggle.
“I was in a stuck place where I had to make something work, and I didn’t know that you can’t make a living as a woodcarver,” he recalled. “I had the advantage of not knowing that, and it worked! I hit the streets hard … kept getting [my art] out in front of people at craft shows, wherever I could get seen. It was a lot of Top Ramen years. It was not easy.”
Over time, Ray honed his skills and eventually landed projects throughout Tahoe. There were the hand-carved family name plaques proudly hung outside the
quintessential winter cabin, and the original sign for Tahoe City’s Hacienda Del Lago, to name a few. People began to notice his talent. But he didn’t want to give
up the dream of becoming a musician and say he’d never tried.
“I really wanted to see if music was going to be a career for me,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to get old and say I never went all the way.’ So I moved my family down to LA and … that’s when my carving career took off.”
Ray would go on to raise three children in the Los Angeles area. While his music career never really blossomed, he continued building signs that were gaining recognition. Then, in 1993, Disney called.
“I tried for years to get in with Disney and nothing!” he remembered. “Then one day, the senior graphic designer for Walt Disney Imagineering happened to go into
a restaurant where I’d done some work, and they called.”
Ray said that Disney’s “Imagineering team” is the thinktank where all of the magic happens behind the theme parks.
“[It’s] every single thing [down] to the color of the button on the vending machine … it’s some of the best creative minds and artists in the world. I just loved working
there,” he said.
Even then, however, he didn’t register what this really meant for him as an artist.
“I thought, ‘Disneyland? That’s interesting work, and the money’s good. Yeah, I’ll do that,’” he recalled. “I had to go before the committee and I figured they’d
start with something little. They put me right at the top: Indiana Jones. I thought ‘I hope nobody finds out I don’t know what I’m doing.’ It took off from there.”
At Disneyland, the park is considered a show, so the front is “on stage” and the back, where all the magic is created, is “backstage.” Ray worked as a cast member — the term used for all Disneyland and Walt Disney World employees — for 12 years. Only later did he realize the full magic of what he’d been creating all along.
“People started telling me, ‘wow you were part of my childhood. Warm memories come from you,’” he said. “When I was doing this stuff, it was just work. I didn’t really get it. People talk about [how] it’s a magical feeling. At the time I didn’t get that, but a couple years ago I got to take my grandkids to Disneyland for
a day, and I got it.”
In Ray’s work, intricate figures spring to life with a depth and curiosity created by the layered effects of his carvings and careful use of detailed painting and color.
Through the years, he learned many techniques on his own, not shared as they once would’ve been in a European guild through an apprenticeship.
He says all his carvings are similar, in that they follow the same method, no matter how intricate. Each begins with an illustrated design, which becomes a layered
design as pieces of the background are chipped out by hand and with the help of machines. The elements are smoothed out through sanding and then painted, adding details and luminance. When he first began, there were no computers, so he even had to teach himself how to create fonts for the lettering.
“I’m self-taught, so I kind of had to figure this out,” he said. “There is no real education for it. But by asking questions, going around talking to friends, reading what I could, and eventually making a lot of mistakes, eventually I found out
stuff that did work.”
Today, Ray is humble about his 42-year career, saying it took a lot of work and was a long learning process. How exactly did he get here? He doesn’t know. Perhaps it was that many generations of his family have been artists and musicians, or that his third-great grandfather, Seth Kinman, a chair maker and early settler of Humboldt County, just left something good for woodworking to the gene pool.
Ray asserts he was lucky, because he didn’t know that he couldn’t make it as an artist.
“It’s a very organic, zen process,” he said, likening his art to his love of music. “You just drop into this zone that’s hypnotizing. You’re working with your hands. To feel the tool cutting through wood, there’s something about that. [As musicians] something comes out of our hands.”
And on the days when he feels uninspired to work, he turns back to that first love. He still plays music, and is carving more than ever.
Having always lived rurally, Ray is back in Northern California, enjoying a life in the
forests of Grass Valley spent building custom commissions for people who collect Disney memorabilia. He returns to Tahoe regularly, revisiting his roots.
“Something gets into your blood there,” he said. “I learned my career and my music there, so when I go up to Tahoe it’s memory lane. It’s a wonderful place. It’s magic.”
To the onlooker, he isn’t living a humble life though, no matter how much he insists so. A recent carving of his sold by Disney at auction garnered $85,000.
“I’m so busy working I never put much thought into it, but I’m getting it now,” he admitted. “I get people contacting me from all over the world saying thank you. It’s super gratifying.”
His focus now is to keep challenging himself, building bigger and more intricate projects, and to teach his craft.
“This is something that’s really precious, and I hope to pass the torch,” he said.
Carrying on the legacy, Ray’s son Shane Kinman also has a thriving career as a woodcarver out of Lake Arrowhead, a place Ray once lived and calls “the Tahoe of Los Angeles.” Ray also teaches workshops to the public. Unsurprisingly, spots in these workshops continue to sell out.
“At a time in life when most people are thinking about slowing down, I’m kicking it into higher gear,” Ray said. “The way I figure it I’m already retired. I know exactly what I want. If I were to win the lottery, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s amazing to see what’s happened now. I never would have thought this, ever. I’m eternally
grateful and I never expected it.”
Main Image Caption: SUCCESS to Ray Kinman, simply meant never failing. He trusted his path as an artist, never stopping to think he couldn’t do it. Over four decades later, he continues to thrive. Photo Courtesy Ray Kinman