A new start after 60: there was no time to waste – so I gave up my job and started stone carving

<span>Ane Freed-Kernis: ‘Nothing makes you feel better than hitting a piece of stone really hard.’</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Ane Freed-Kernis: ‘Nothing makes you feel better than hitting a piece of stone really hard.’Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

In 2019, after retiring from her career as a social worker, Ane Freed-Kernis decided to build a home workshop and devote all of her free time to stone carving. “It’s really therapeutic and completely absorbing,” she says. “I might be covered head to toe in dust but I’m happy – it was something I needed more of in my life when I hit 60.”

This fascination has its roots in Freed-Kernis’ childhood. Growing up on her father’s farm in Denmark, she used to wander through the fields with her gaze fixed on the ground, looking for stones to add to her collection. “I’ve always been drawn to the shapes and textures of stones,” she says.

After moving to England in 1977 and training as a social worker, Freed-Kernis soon became occupied with her busy career and the demands of raising her son. Stones were the last thing on her mind, until her father died in 2005. “He took a stone carving course in his retirement, and I always thought it seemed so fun but never had the time to look into it myself,” she says. “After he died I became determined to learn in his honour.”

Signing up for a week-long stone carving course at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Freed-Kernis began to learn how to turn a lump of rock into elegant, figurative shapes, while overlooking Henry Moore’s vast sculptures. It proved to be an invigorating, though exhausting, experience. “It was really intimidating at the start because you would spend hours just hammering. While the teacher was blowing off huge chunks, it felt as if I was getting nowhere,” she says. “I’m glad I kept going, though, because eventually you begin to see the image that was in your mind emerging from the stone – and it’s exhilarating.”

The first piece she brought to life was a giant salamander – so large that she had to enlist her son to help her move it from the car into the garden of her Manchester house, where it still remains. Later, she signed up to other local stone-carving courses during her time off from work, slowly building a collection of sculpted animals and abstract figures, as well as her own hammers and chisels.

When she turned 60 in 2019, she realised this had become a passion she needed to commit to. “Everything else falls away and I love the creative process of seeing a design I have sketched in 2D become something real,” she says. “It felt like a new purpose.”

When she was able to draw her pension, Freed-Kernis built a workshop in her garden where she could sculpt and create masses of stone dust whenever she pleased. She began submitting her creations to local galleries and accepting commissions. “People started seeing and touching my work in these local shows, and they decided to buy it,” she says. “I was so pleased that they liked my style.”

Now 65, Freed-Kernis has a thriving small business built largely through word of mouth. She creates 12 to 15 pieces a year that can take anywhere from a few days to three weeks to complete, while her prices range from £200 to £3,000. Her works have a delicate feel, following smoothed surfaces and flowing lines to create pleasingly rotund objects such as stooping elephants or sitting cows.

“I’m making smaller pieces that I can hold and move by myself at the moment, including a series of alabaster white whales and an owl,” she says. “I don’t have to depend on the money much, so I want to keep prices in the range that people can afford, mainly just covering costs and labour.”

In May, Freed-Kernis will be exhibiting in the Chorlton Arts Festival and is now finishing five pieces for display, including a whale-themed water feature that produces a fountain from its blowhole. “As long as I can physically sculpt, I will. It has become a lifelong pursuit,” she says. “Plus, it’s great if you’re in a bad mood, since nothing makes you feel better than hitting a piece of stone really hard, repeatedly – I recommend everyone try it!”

Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60? Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60? Fill in the online form at theguardian.com/new-start-after-60