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Crafting an Active Retirement

Not the Retiring Type

The tables at Willamalane’s Holiday Marketplace made a strong case for buying local when selecting holiday gifts. Knitted caps and crocheted pot scrubbers. Beaded earrings and decoupaged wall art. Jars of homemade jam. An effusion of the homespun charm and creativity that spills through holiday markets in church fellowship halls and community centers at this time of year.

But it was the wooden boxes that caught my eye. They sat amid a display of finely crafted wooden clocks, serving trays, napkin rings, and jewelry boxes, all featuring a variety of woods.

I raised the fitted lid from one box and found inside a shallow, felt-lined tray that lifted out of the box, leaving an open space below. With a questioning tilt of my head, I turned toward the man behind the table. “No drawers?” I asked.

He stepped around the table and picked up the box, pointing out the finely fitted “finger joints” at each corner. He identified the varied woods melded into the lid and then carefully continued.

The box, he explained, is an urn. A receptacle for contents more valuable than gold or silver. A box for cherished remains. The top shelf might hold photos and mementos, he suggested. The lower section would contain cremains.

An urn! Well, this certainly was not on my Christmas list. But still, it was beautiful and ultimately practical. I wavered as I stroked the finish and turned the box from side to side. A person could rest in peace, I decided, inside a work of art like this. It’s not that I intend to rush the inevitable but until then, I could find other ways to enjoy an elegant, handcrafted box created by a Springfield craftsman.

For 40 years, Jay R. Richards drove trucks for a living, he told me. He sat at the wheel of dump trucks, cement trucks, logging trucks and tankers hauling orange juice from coast to coast. It wasn’t the career he’d hoped for while growing up in Yakima, WA, the son of a truck-driving father. But there it was—reliable work that seemed to shoulder other options aside. It left little time for the woodworking hobby he puttered at for years.

Three years ago, at age 62, he climbed down from the driver’s seat and retired from Levitt’s Freight Service. After 40 years of sitting, he took a stand in his workshop and turned a hobby into a full-time passion.

He produced a Craftsman style bedroom set for his home, then moved on to smaller items pieced from oak, walnut, mahogany, or clear fir-most of it wood remnants gleaned from remodeling projects of friends and neighbors.

The cremation boxes emerged in his production line to solve a practical need in his own family. His wife’s mother wanted her two daughters to be buried beside her one day in a Rhode Island burial plot, next to their deceased father. Richards turned his talents to elegant cremation containers that would allow all three to rest together in a space once intended for just one.

This year, a different space issue prompted Richards into the holiday marketplace. His wife, Ann, declared that their Springfield home was getting overloaded with the output of his shop. She convinced him to try clearing a few shelves with sales at a community fair.

The December Holiday Marketplace at Willamalane Adult Activity Center was his first ever crafts show. He reckons it won’t be his last.

“People appreciate the work,” he said on his second day of sales. “That gives me an incentive to do more things.” For Richards, it’s that incentive--a sense of purpose and achievement--rather than financial income that motivates his dedication to the craft. He isn’t ready to sit down just yet.

Lifetime Truckers take a CreativeTurn

As it turns out, Richards isn’t the only career trucking employee who is exploring the joys of creativity in the freedom of retirement. And not the only retired trucker selling wares at holiday fairs.

John Siwinski, 71, worked 30 years in the trucking industry, moving from apprentice mechanic to regional service manager for Mack trucking in Allentown, PA. Before retirement led him back to Eugene.

I bumped into the two truckers independently---a kind of fortuitous encounter with men who traveled similar career paths but do not know one another. I didn’t know it either when I tracked down senior vendors at craft fairs. It wasn’t John Siwinski I was looking for at all. It was his wife, Susan, 67, who had come to my attention with the gnarled faces of garden wizards she shapes into ceramic masks to hang on tree trunks or backyard fences.

Susan Siwinski winced when I described the faces as “garden gnomes.” She finds that term foreboding. But it’s as close as I can get to a description of the big-nosed, droopy-jowled visages she nestles in a wreath of ceramic leaves or ribbons to create unique hanging plaques.

John and Susan moved to Eugene from Chicago in 1976 in a swirl of youthful restlessness. They felt the tug of a free-thinking West Coast lifestyle. Wanted their two sons to feel connected to the outdoors. John transferred with Mack Truck to a mechanic position in Eugene while Susan found substitute teaching jobs and part-time work at fast food restaurants and fabric stores. They left Eugene for Mack advances and returned when he retired in 1998.

Retirement didn’t mean kicking-back or leaving work behind for either of them. It meant having more choices about where to live and what to do. John found a job at TEC Equipment in Eugene to stay active. Susan turned a spare bedroom at their north Eugene home into a studio for her many hobbies.

One of those hobbies blossomed into Clay Dimensionals, the business name of her garden art. For a while, a local garden shop carried the ceramic masks. When the garden shop closed, Susan turned to artisan craft fairs. While sales were swelling for Susan’s art, the physical demands of John’s job were growing burdensome. Susan reviewed the IRA retirement accounts the couple set up early in their working lives. She tallied pension income and concluded that they could get by just fine if he called it quits with the job.

“Is there something I can to do here to help you?” he asked as he began spending days at home. The transition went smoothly, they report. They became a fine-tuned garden art team with separate functions and separate schedules. She shapes; he paints.

John rises early, as is his preference, and spends mornings at the high-topped kitchen table where he brushes acrylic colors on the faces Susan shapes. She sleeps late and works into the night in the spare bedroom where she molds ceramic clay into masks and wind chime pieces. Each finished piece is a shared work showcasing skills each brings to the craft.

“It’s like painting models,” John insists, explaining his process of applying the colorful touches that give each face an individual finish.

“We love each other’s contribution to this.” Susan says. “We treat it as a job. We get dressed every day, like going to work.”

Six times a year they market the masks and ceramic wind chimes at crafts fairs from Roseburg to Salem. Eugene’s Art in the Vineyard and the autumn Clay Fest have been regular venues for half a dozen years. Salem’s holiday market in December delivers the year’s strongest sales.

About half of their income goes back into the business and the rest eases concerns about outliving retirement savings. This year they bought a new kiln and installed it in the garage. A previous kiln survived for ten years and 500 firings before showing signs of age. They’re counting on at least ten more good years ahead to continue the work that now gives structure and purpose to their days.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.7 percent of people 65 and older are still working in some capacity, compared with 11.7 percent in 1995. And the number seems primed to keep growing. A Wells Fargo survey this year reported that 34 percent of workers age 60-plus plan to keep working as long as they are physically and mentally able. The Siwinskis understand why.

“When you get a hobby like this, it goes beyond the economic part,” says John. ”We talk about it all the time. It’s what makes us tick.”

Carolyn Scott Kortge, of Eugene, is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of “The Spirited Walker.” Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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