For many, the word “retirement” elicits mixed emotions ranging from relief at much-needed free time to anxiety over how to spend it.
But for people like Andy Shafer, 74, there’s no question about how to spend his free time after retiring from a teaching career: creating more artwork. He’s been doing it all his life.
“I really started working harder when I retired, and I love it,” Shafer said last week, seated in a side room at the 200 Main gallery in Eau Claire. “I don’t know what retirement is. Let’s put it that way.”
Shafer is one of four artists to contribute to 200 Main’s latest exhibit, “Four Accomplished Gents.” It also displays the work of local artists Mel Sundby, 76; Bob Gehrke, 66; and John Lawler, 81. The gallery will showcase a collection of sculptures, paintings and clay.
Together, the four artists — considered some of the best fine artists in the region — reflected on the influence time has had on their work, and whether “retirement” is a word that applies to them.
When asked last week in the gallery space whether “retirement” could ever apply to an artist, a couple of the men crossed their arms and shook their head, chuckling.
“I guess most of us, maybe all of us, don’t think about being in that stage, retirement,” Lawler said. “We’re just moving on, and we’ve got more freedom than we used to have and we can do more different things than we used to, because we’ve got time.
“I've noticed there's a lot being written about retirement and how people should react to it, how people should spend it, what they should do and shouldn’t do,” Lawler added. “I think we’re fortunate being visual artists that we have sort of a built-in way of dealing with retirement.”
Sundby, who was an art professor before retiring, agreed.
“Once I reached the age, it was like I sort of made a leap forward,” he said. “I don’t look at it like going to a job. I read a little in the morning and then go out to the shop, court the muse.”
While he continues to make art, Gehrke said he does know of artists who are retired and stopped creating. In that way, those artists aren’t all that different from people retiring from other professions, he said.
So what motivates the artists behind “Four Accomplished Gents” to keep creating, and has that motivation changed over the years? Gehrke hypothesized the core reason — making a mark on the world — is what keeps most artists in the studio.
“One of your primary fears is being forgotten, being unrecognized,” Gehrke said, citing the Bruce Springsteen song lyric “I ride by night and I travel in fear that in this darkness I will disappear.”
“I don’t think happiness motivates us, and it’s an unconscious thing,” Gehrke said.
“(A sculpture) could be buried for half a million years, and somebody will find it,” Sundby added. “They’ll dig it up and maybe wonder where it came from. Who was the guy who made that? There is that eternal aspect of, ‘I just want people to know that I was here.’ ”
Shafer said making paintings that are better than what he’s done before is his motivation. Unlike with other jobs, he said, artwork has no ceiling to hit.
“In art, you just keep going forever,” Shafer said, noting the term ‘eternal discontent’ and its relation to an artist’s profession. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get where I want to get to, but that makes it a big adventure.”
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