When asked how he created his sculptures, the Renaissance artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni reputedly replied:
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
The ability to carve with artistry, whatever the material, demands that an individual possess steady hands, vision and an imaginative eye. These traits seem to be held in abundance by south Tempe resident Altan Foster.
With 32 years’ experience in woodworking, during which he has made everything from rocking horses and toys for his grandchildren to exquisite pens, bowls and furniture from American, South American and African materials, Foster now hands out business cards that announce his profession-justifiably, we’d agree-as “Master Craftsman.”
If his skills are grounded in history, Foster’s technique doesn’t ignore the convenience of modern technology, either. He goes online to North Carolina and Utah to purchase materials and research the woods that best fit his artistic vision.
The results of Foster’s artistic and entrepreneurial vision, all seem to concur, are nothing short of miraculous. His son, Gary Foster, thinks his father’s hobby is “amazing.” He has tried to use his dad’s tools to attempt woodworking, but without success.
“You’ve got to be exact and have an artistic touch to do it.”
Neighbor Janice Shafer agrees.
“[Altan] uses creativity and intellect to show that art can be made at any point in life,” said Shafer. “It is profound to witness someone who carries forward in such a way.”
Making Foster’s accomplishments all the more remarkable is a simple glance at the calendar: He was born Feb. 28, 1917, making this his 92nd year.
Age hasn’t dampened Foster’s pursuit of the artistic, however. Following his retirement from business at age 64, Foster knew only that he “really loved wood.” He had attended arts-and-crafts shows and saw the work of skilled artisans; it didn’t take long for him to decide that he would take up woodworking as a hobby. He gathered the supplies and even did some logging himself.
At no time during the process, he said, did age ever stand as a deterrent to his “attraction to the smell and feel of wood.”
“I am fortunate that my health has been good,” said Foster. “My hands have remained steady so I can do what I love.”
Last year, Foster made more than 100 pens, as well as many bowls, both as gifts and for profit. One of the personal philosophies he incorporates into his work is that he does not discard wood with unsightly knots or flaws, but instead fills natural defects with turquoise or other attractive gems.
This technique gives his bowls “interest” and beauty, he says.
“I am inspired by the shape and texture of the wood,” he said. I like to let the natural rim show, and I work with imperfections to make something unique.”
Foster regularly sells his products at fairs and shows where his bowls and furniture are increasingly sought after. According to son Gary, local museums have even taken an interest in his dad’s work.
Here’s a case, says the younger Foster, where someone’s hobby has more than paid for itself.
Through the sale of his art, Foster has been able to purchase expensive woodworking equipment, as well as turn a profit. For those who have witnessed his talent at work, Foster has provided much more than beautiful art and useful items.
His endeavors at an age not far from the century mark seem to have inspired others to continue to seek fulfillment and challenge themselves throughout their lives.
“I just hope that I’m doing as well as my father at 92.”