July/August 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 5

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The author's steatite carving

The author’s steatite carving

An Artful Transition to Retirement

Thomas L. Van Valey, Western Michigan University

Since I still have an office in my former department and attend professional meetings, I am frequently asked, “Didn’t you retire?” My usual response to this is, “I’m retired, but I’m not dead!”

From an academic career, which included both directing an active research center and chairing the department, it definitely can be quite a transition to retirement. I was once told, “You should retire TO something, not retire FROM something.” I thought that was good advice, so my approach to the transition has been twofold. First, I tried to make the FROM as gentle as possible. I no longer teach classes, and I only go to meetings that I want to attend. However, I go to my office every week or two, and I still do some research, write a little, make presentations at some professional meetings, and serve on an occasional MA or PhD committee. Those things keep me in touch with friends and colleagues I have known for many years. They also keep my brain active.

Second, I have tried to increase the things that I retired TO. In addition to playing golf and reading fantasy and science fiction, which I have done since I was a teenager, I continue as a member of a community English handbell ensemble that does concerts and workshops about dozen times a year. My wife and I also do a fair amount of traveling (one of my goals is to visit every one of the 53 national parks — we have visited 37 so far). But, those were all things I also did before I retired. I just have more time for them now (translated as fewer scheduling problems).

Another carving by the author

Another carving by the author.

Set in Stone

The one major activity I added after retiring was stone carving. I started by taking some classes at our local arts institute. I also took a weekend-long workshop at a marble quarry in Vermont. Those were enough to teach me what tools I needed and where to get stone. My wife agreed for me to use a small room in the house as a studio.

When carving, I seldom know in advance what the outcome will be. In each case, I buy a 25-70 pound piece of stone (mostly alabaster, but some marble and steatite) in a block or irregular chunk. I decide whether it will be vertical or horizontal, and then start roughing out a shape. To do that, I drill holes, or saw off pieces, or use a hammer and chisel (sometimes all three). After I feel comfortable with the basic shape, I use rasps and rifflers (tools intended for stone sculpture) to finalize the shape. Sanding and polishing the stone come next, and then finally mounting it for display.

Two recent pieces (see photos) are alabaster (the one that bears a fleeting resemblance to the head of a flamingo) and steatite (the white one with the holes). The alabaster came in a 3-inch thick slab about 12 inches wide and 18 inches high. It is mounted on a piece of black granite. The steatite (also known as soapstone) was an irregular block, about 7 inches thick, 9 inches high, and 20 inches long. It is also mounted on granite.

Like research and teaching, stone carving is always different. It definitely challenges me. I find I make many changes as I work, not only on a given piece, but from piece to piece. Unlike my academic work, however, it does give me more time for travel.

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