Michael Irwin’s long career in education included teaching art, and while his own art practice continued in the background, he has been able to give sculpting full rein since retiring three years ago.
His home in Red Beach is littered with blocks of Oamaru stone, which he buys by the pallet-load, and his garage features several works he is making from those blocks, or Taranaki andesite.
He also has a big chunk of Italian marble on his bench, which he bought “for a dozen beer” to sculpt.
He says it is the tactile nature of sculpture that appeals. “I’ve been in trouble at some museums for touching sculptures,” he says. “But they should be felt as well as seen.”
He is a member of a carving club in New Plymouth, and visits there often but sculpts most days at home.
“Oamaru stone is relatively soft and can be carved with hand tools so it’s not too noisy for neighbours, and doesn’t throw out as much dust,” he says.
Michael describes his work as formal in style and often features boats, birds and figures. A new abstract series he is about to start is inspired by shells.
Recently he made himself a gas-fired furnace so he can melt aluminium and copper and cast shapes to incorporate in his work.
Originally a painter, Michael began sculpting around 15 years ago and has taught sculpting at Estuary Arts Centre.
“People like the accomplishment of making something and you get so involved in what you’re doing that you forget everything else.”
As part of his doctorate, Michael focused on boys’ education, and once again art was a starting point.
Along the way, he developed a programme that uses art to re-engage students who are “reluctant writers”.
“As a school Principal I saw more boys at my door for getting into trouble than girls, which is why I wanted to study that area of learning,” Michael says.
He says the programme has proved successful with some of the most reluctant readers in schools on the North Shore.
Covid-19 meant putting aside his plans to head to northern Italy to visit carvers’ workshops and view sculptures. He hopes that trip may still happen in a year or so.
Michael exhibits and sells his work and works on commission as well as gifting pieces to family and friends.