I have been carving since I was too young to carve.
I have been carving since I was too young to carve. My mother and I carved Ivory soap with paring knives on the back porch and saved the shavings for the washing machine. Mom was so good she could carve anything - - giraffes, snakes, and all manner of difficult things. But my little hands couldn’t control the knife, and I was in such a rush that I either broke the soap or cut myself. All I could carve at first were bears and other round things that required imagination to name.
“Shaaaave the soap, like this, Lee,” she would say, and produce beautiful great long curly shavings from the giraffe’s neck that were just as fascinating to me as the giraffe. The shavings were only soap, but in their curliness they looked like the Christmas tree ornaments we picked up off the floor of the machine shop down the street. Slowly, I began to realize that shaving soap, shaving metal, and shaving wood were different flavours of the same basic process.
After I was good enough, Mom said “There’s a kind of rock up on the hill that you can carve. Do you want to try it?”
“You can’t carve rocks! They’re too hard.”
“You can carve this kind. It’s called soapstone.”
It was magical. I carved an ashtray for her and a few other things. In Boy Scouts, I carved neckerchief slides of wood. My Grandpa Gass gave me a pocket knife, and showed me how to keep it sharp and carve a ball in a cage with it (see grandpa article). In an essay in the education part of this website I tell about carving chalk as a high school biology teacher (see article on silence in teaching), as a way to keep my hands busy and my mouth shut when it was important for the students to talk. My first serious sculptures, all in wood, were done in graduate school. As a university scientist, I carried a butt-pack with me everywhere, and carved and sanded stone sculptures in committee meetings, PhD examinations, and other events. (If you think that’s bad, my Dean Maria Klawe, a mathematician and computer scientist who is now President of Harvey Mudd College, painted water colours in meetings; she gave me one for my 60th birthday and I often wonder what kind of meetings she painted it in.)
Although I was driven to do it, all that carving was avocational and amateur, and much of it was amateurish as well. That changed suddenly for me in the spring of 1982, during the second half of my first sabbatical leave from the university. I spent the fall term giving talks about my hummingbird research at eastern universities, consulting with colleagues about planned research, and writing scientific papers. In February and March 1982, however, I spent 6 weeks house-sitting on Galiano Island and did nothing but carve. My graduate students were welcome to visit me at any time, but I didn’t go to town, didn’t think about science, and I carved every day in a makeshift outdoor studio where I could listen to the eagles scream. It was wonderful.
About half way through my time on the island, I realized that although I was having a good time carving, the work was progressing slowly and I was frustrated about that. I worried that I might never again have the luxury of spending so much time carving, and wanted more to show for it. Something was wrong, but I didn’t understand what it was. It is probably significant that all this came to a head during the week of my 40th birthday. I spent the week doing arithmetic, mainly versions of “Two times 20 is 40 and what have I accomplished?” and “Two times 40 is 80 and I’d better get a move on!” I stayed up all night reflecting on my predicament.
Near morning, I began to understand something important. All my life I had carved for fun, for recreation. But never in my life had I understood what recreation was all about. I just didn’t get it, and had usually felt like an outsider and an impostor around fun and games. On the other hand, I had always loved to work and thought I understood it. Whereas recreation was mysterious and uncomfortable for me, work was clear and I could relax into it. Work was strongly intentional, for one thing. Always, it was about getting something done. I knew that for many people and maybe most, work was only about making money and they didn’t like it. But it wasn’t like that for me. Since I was old enough to shovel snow and mow lawns I had had jobs, and I had always had more than enough money because of them. But they were rarely about the money for me. It sounds too simple to say it this way, but my jobs were about challenges, about developing competence in the adult world, and about getting things done.
Literally as the day dawned, it all came together for me. I realized that my sculpting should be work, not play, and I made a commitment that changed my life: I would “behave as if sculpting were my life’s work”. The difference was immediate, dramatic, and lasting. Before lunchtime that first day, I had learned more about carving than I had learned in my entire life before then. Somehow, the strong intentionality embodied in my commitment heightened my experience and made me pay much closer attention to many more things than I had the day before. Literally everything I did had consequences, and because of that it had meaning. It was simple. All I had to do was pay attention to connections between what I did and what happened as a result, and the process of my sculpting would tune itself, adapt to new tools, new materials, and new forms and improve, just like everything else I knew anything about.
A good example is that every chip of wood flying past my ear made a sound that reflected the size and shape of the chip. The sound of the chip in turn expressed the relationship between the quality of the wood, the shape and sharpness of the chisel and its orientation with respect to the wood, the weight of the mallet, and the nature of the blow I delivered. I also discovered that every part of my body was involved in every stroke, and that I could connect those many sensations with the sensation of the sound of the chip. All of those sensations, those experiences, those awarenesses fit together into patterns of connectedness that I could use to tune the process. All I needed to vastly increase productivity and quality was attend to how those things related to each other, and I did. As I had many times before in other work situations, I got down to work.
It was an incredible experience. I did some of my best work ever during the next three weeks. Ever since, as long as I have remembered my commitment while I am working, stuff has happened. High on the wall in Dream Person Studio right now is a big banner: “Behaving as if sculpting were my life’s work.”
What does this all mean, in addition to rescuing me from my frustration 26 years ago? I think it means a lot.
For example, it illustrates that to “behave as if” does not imply professional competence, because a life’s work is much more about commitment than it is about competence. First comes the commitment, then the attention to process, and the competence follows as a result, reinforcing the commitment in a virtuous cycle that is the essence of life-long learning. How many times in my teaching career did I say things like the following to first year university students? “You say you want to be a doctor. Well act like one, and see what happens.” “You want to be a teacher? Well pay attention to your own learning and share that process with others, beginning right now.” How many times did I say to graduate students “You want to be a research scientist? Well attend to your curiosity and let it guide your action.” Commitment to process, i.e. behaving as if, is as important in our work as it is in our relationships, and for many of the same reasons.
It does not mean “believing will make it so” or anything like that. It has nothing to do with belief, and most of the time I think that belief is the enemy. It is about commitment to action, not about belief. And it certainly does not mean that even the strongest commitment will necessarily produce professional competence, which requires a lot more than commitment. There’s just no way I could have been a professional basketball player, no matter what; if you’ve ever seen me, you’ll know what I’m talking about here.
Nor does behaving as if sculpting were my life’s work imply that I must make my living doing that, although my intention now is to do that. For 22 years after the dawning of my commitment to sculpting, I continued to develop my research program, train graduate students, and do all the things I was paid to do in the university. For 22 years I continued to develop my teaching career. I spent most of my time doing those things, and I contributed greatly not only as a classroom teacher but as a developer of educational programs, a consultant on the quality of education, and a teacher of teachers. And all during that time I behaved, while I was sculpting, as if sculpting were my life’s work. These activities competed with each other only for time, and I discovered many ways in which they complement and reinforce each other, synergistically. I spent all the time I could sculpting, which wasn’t a lot. But a lot can happen in 22 years of 5, 10, or 20 hours a week of committed work.
Now I get to do it all the time. Had I waited until retirement to begin acting on my commitment, I think it may have been too late for me to produce the quality of work I produce now or produce so much of it. There would have been too much to learn, too many physical and mental skills to develop, and it would have been too hard on my body to use heavy dangerous tools on heavy materials all day, every day, professionally. It may have been too late to develop the strength, the stamina, or the resilience to sculpt professionally. I suppose I could have begun now where I began 26 years ago, but I’m now 66 years old and still have a lot of developing to do. It’s working out just fine so far.
Still behaving as if sculpting were my life’s work, I intend to produce the very highest quality sculpture that I can before I die. And that’s a commitment.