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Three Crowns Park, a 200-member retirement community in northwest Evanston, has all the amenities one might expect of a first-class facility – comfortable apartments, a bright and spacious dining area, a swimming pool, a library, a hair salon, a business center and an unexpected one: its own resident “whittler.”
Since moving into Three Crowns from Wilmette three and a half years ago, Rolf Stetter has produced as many as 25 wood carvings, many of them animal figures or miniature houses, working from natural materials.
At first displayed monthly in one of the glass curio cabinet cases used for exhibits at Three Crowns, Mr. Stetter’s wood carvings, at the urging of residents, were eventually moved to their own space, in Three Crown’s library.
“His display was so popular people looked forward to what he was doing today, because yesterday, it was very different,” said Pam Anderson, Director of Resident Services at Three Crowns, located at 2323 McDaniel Ave. “He enjoys doing it, and you can see it. His whimsy and sense of humor are just wonderful.”
“Everyone here waits anxiously for the next piece of folk art to appear at Rolf’s Corner in the library,” echoed Diane Teska, a Three Crowns resident. “Every week or two, there is a new piece in there, and they are all so good. They are cleverly done – not just the aspect of his whittling, but the aspect of what he sees in there [the material]. It’s really an addition to our lives to have these delightful whimsies put out on quite a regular basis.”
Mr. Stetter, 88, who more accurately describes himself as a folk artist, has been whittling a good part of his life, really getting into the hobby after he and his wife, Clarice, were married 61 years ago.
“We moved into a house. and I built a bunch of furniture for the house,” he said. “But, you know, you only need so much furniture. I looked around and saw a little piece of wood and I saw this figure in it.”
From there he started looking for other wood “to see what I could see in it, so I’d pick up some piece of driftwood or a branch or something I might see in it – like the curve of neck or a body,” he said. “Then I started whittling to make it obvious.”
He is not picky about where he gets his materials. “I’ll take whatever wood I find. I’ll take road kill – you know, where branches have fallen,” Mr. Stetter said, smiling.
While still living in Wilmette, he would get wood “from my backyard, from my front yard, from neighbors who found a piece of wood that was interesting – the beaches, anywhere.”
An “excellent time” to find pieces was after storms blew through an area. “I’d ask the guys who were tree trimming the damage for a piece,” he said, “and they’d always be glad to give it to me.”
A typical wood carving can take anywhere from a week to a month, he said. His tools are very simple, a pair of Japanese saws (which, unlike regular saws, cut on the pull stroke), assorted knives, a gouge to dig out the wood, a hammer, a screwdriver, Elmer’s Glue (“a lot of that”) all neatly tucked away on shelves in a closet at his Three Crowns apartment.
A CPA until about five years ago, Mr. Stetter often did his carving after work, while watching TV or listening to music.
“I find it very relaxing,” he said. “It’s kind of like working a puzzle or something.”
He estimated he has given out 100-plus carvings over the years to family, friends, for birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. When he turned 65, Mr. Stetter held a big party at his Wilmette house, putting out a bunch of pieces, with prices on them. The money collected went to the Nature Conservancy Foundation, a global environmental group.
He has kept a few pieces for himself, judging from a quick tour of his apartment.
In one, Noah stands on top of an ark, wearing a rain slicker. “As I say, I like to have fun,” explained Mr. Stetter.
A teeth-baring alligator with a fisherman’s hat perched on its head was carved from a three- or four-foot piece of driftwood.
A pig with wings carving was inspired by a comment from one of Mr. Stetter’s clients during his tax days. He had asked about the possibility of her retrieving a check or invoice from her records. “When a pig flies,” she replied.
A trunk of an oak tree provided the setting for a medieval village, complete with drawbridge running between a village and castle. “I always think of Laurel and Hardy kind of pushing a piano up the bridge or something,” Mr. Stetter said.
In another part of the apartment, eight or nine owls, in formal wear, sit on a miniature tree, making up a “Members Only” club.
Wood-carving goes far back in American history with old weather vanes, store signs some of the most popular carved figures.
Mr. Stetter expressed a simple goal for his own work.
“I try to make things that are joyful and give people pleasure to look at,” he said.