Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on November 10, 2016 | Teaching and Learning, Sculpture and Art
The birth of a sculptor

 The image shows
Lee Gass at two stages in his
sculpting career; when he was learning to
carve Ivory soap
and sanding Red Recursion.
Photos by David Shackleton and an
unknown photographer
long ago.

I’ve been carving
since I was too young to carve.
and I carved Ivory soap on the
back porch and saved the shavings for the
washing machine.
She could carve anything –
giraffes, snakes, flowers –  all kinds of things, but

I couldn’t control the paring knife and was in such
a rush that I often either broke the soap or cut
myself and all I could carve  round things
like bears that took hindsight and
imagination even to name. 

the soap, she’d say,
like this, and
peel big long
beautiful curly shavings
from her giraffe’s
neck.   Try it.

Her shavings
were as fascinating as her
giraffes.  They were only soap, but
were as interesting in their curliness as

steel Christmas tree ornaments we picked
up off the floor of the machine shop down the
street and hung every year. 
Slowly, I  realized
that shaving soap, shaving metal, shaving
wood, and slicing thin slices of carrots and
apples were different flavours of
the same basic process.

After I could
carve Ivory soap OK, Mom told
me about
a kind of a rock up on the hill that
I could carve and asked if I’d like to try it.
  I said
ou can’t carve rocks!  They’re too hard.”  “You
carve these,” she said, “they’re called soapstone”,
and i
t was magical.  Carving rocks!  I carved her an
ash tray and a few other things.  Later in Boy Scouts
I carved wooden neckerchief slides. 
Grandpa Gass
gave me a pocket knife, showed me how to keep it
sharp, slice thin slices of apple without cutting
my thumb, and carve balls in cages
(Let me tell you a story about
my Grandpa Gass

In Secrets of
Silence in the Classroom
I told
about carving chalk while teaching high
school biology to keep my hands busy and my
mouth shut.   I did m
y first serious sculptures, all in
wood, in graduate school.  As a professor I carried a butt
pack everywhere and carved and sanded stone sculptures in
meetings, PhD exams, and other events.  I
f you think that’s
bad, check this out because it’s wonderful. 
When Maria
Klawe was dean and vice president at UBC she
painted watercolours in meetings and gave
me one for my 60th birthday.   Now as
President of Harvey Mudd College
she still does.  I tell all about
it in Secrets of Silence.

Though I was
driven to do it, all that carving
was avocational and amateur, and much of
it was amateurish as well.  T
hat changed dramatically
in spring 1982, during the second half of my first sabbatical
leave from the university. I spent the fall term giving talks
about my hummingbird research back east, consulted with
colleagues on research plans and writing papers.  I
most of February and March house-sitting on Galiano
Island doing nothing
but carve. Grad students
could visit me any time, but I didn’t think
about science or go to town  and
carved all day every day in a
makeshift outdoor studio
and listened to the
eagles scream.

All of it was
more than wonderful.
About half way through my
time on the island, I realized that
though I was having a good time carving,
work progressed slowly and I worried – – m
I never again spend so much time carving? S
was’t right and I didn’t know what it was.  This
the week of my 40th birthday,
which I spent doing arithmetic
2 x 20 = 40 but what have I accomplished and 2 x 40
= 80 and I’d better get a move on!. 
I stayed up all night
reflecting on this,
and near morning it dawned on
me that a
ll my life I’d carved recreationally,
for fun, essentially, but had never known
what fun
was all about.  I did have
fun and had lots of it but didn’t
‘get’ doing things to have fun.
usually felt like outsider
and impostor around
fun and games.

I understood work.
was clear and simple, and I
could relax into the fact that it
would always
be strongly intentional about getting things done.
I knew that for many of us, maybe most, work was mainly
about money and they didn’t like it, but it hadn’t been about
that for me. 
Since I was old enough to shovel snow and
mow lawns, I’d always had jobs, had money, and
wouldn’t have had money without them, but
they were rarely about that for me.

It sounds too simple to say it this way, but
work was usually about challenge,
competence, and getting things done.

As night dawned
into day  it all came together
for me.  Sculpting became work,
not play, and I committed to something
that changed my life.  I committed to
Behave as if sculpting were
my life’s work.

The difference
was immediate, dramatic, and lasting,
and before lunchtime that day I had learned more
about sculpting than my entire life before. 
declaring intentionality clearly and expressing it
in action heightened my experience of the
work and helped me attend more
fully to more aspects of the
process than the
day before.

Literally everything
I did in sculpting always had
had consequences. Now, because of
my commitment, it also
had meaning.

All I had to do
was pay attention to connections
between what I did and what happened
in result and my sculpting could tune itself,
adapt to new tools, materials, methods,
and forms and improve, just as
in any other kind of
work I’d done.

A flying chip sounds
like shrapnel, declaring its size,
shape, speed, mass, rotation, path,
wood quality, grain, sharpness,
angle, mallet weight,
angle, power, and is gone.

Things I learned
that morning serve me still and well.  Many
obvious in hindsight, but in the bright light of commitment
they became real and changed  my life  forever.

Every part of
my body engages in some way
in every stroke I make. 
I feel movements,
forces, angles among bones, and feel my skin.
Sensations  of integrated experience of work, more
aware of more facets of sculpting than I
possible before behaving as if  sculpting
were my life’s work became my
life’s work.

and this is in the nature of
tools, this ongoing flow of sensation is
intimately linked to the kinds of curves I carve.
my body moves in certain ways, makes certain
changes in certain media to make certain forms,
ow flying chips sound is connected to feelings
in arm, back, legs as mallet nears tool.
Breathing.  Neck.  Feet against floor.
Feelings.  Feeling forms.

more I
get into the work
the less aware I am of
the passage of time or of
myself and if
I’m really into it,
in my experience I’m not even
there!  I’m not in the movie.
Only work, working, and
whatever flows
through my

Those realizations were HUGE for me!
They changed my life forever, empowered by a
commitment that took a moment.

experience, awareness,
and sculptures coevolve together in
an integrated process, and
attending to
relationships among those parts as they evolve
helps me tune them and do them more effectively.
When I started doing it that way it worked.  All I
had to do,
usually, was get up, get at em, and,
using ideas from before about about how to
do it,
get cracking!  That’s what happened
in my life that morning, other than
that it was also more fun than
it had ever been before. 

What I
meant by ‘the work went well’,
above, is that I started
Submission suddenly
one morning, unaware a round of green wild
cherry firewood was about to be mine but
picked up a gouge, carved it, and the
work went well.

Carve this!
cried Sandy Riley laughing,
pitching a piece
of firewood at me and
bouncing it up the drive.  He got back in his
still laughing, and rattled on down the
road to split and stack the rest of it.

SubmissionPhoto by Ulli Steltzer.

What happened
that morning significantly shifted my
development and most of the shifts were permanent.
I enjoyed carving as much as I had before and did some
of my best work ever in the next three weeks.  Since,
when I’ve remembered to behave as if sculpting
were my life’s work
, as I work, significant things
have resulted. H
igh on a studio wall  a banner
reminds b
ut what does it mean, beyond
rescuing me from a fix
half my life ago?
It has now been that long and the
commitment still guides the
work, so I think it must
mean a lot.

Behaving as if implies no
level of competence at all – i
t’s not about that
but commitment.  Commitment, then attention to process,
or how to do things, and competence follows
as a result. 

In this way,
development of competence
is the gift and the consequence
of commitment. 

It sets up a virtuous cycle that,
when it works, is the essence of life-long learning.
How many times in my teaching career did
I say things like the following?

If you want to
be a doctor, act like one, starting
whatever that means to you, and
see what happens.  I
f you want to be a research
scientist, let your curiosity and ignorance guide
to knowledge and understanding and see
what happens.  I
f you want to be a teacher,
learn from your own learning and share
that with others, starting now,
and see what happens.


How else could it ever happen?

Commitment to process
and to behaving as if, despite not
knowing how to do it yet, is as important
in work as in relationships and for many of the
same kinds of reasons. 
That does not mean that
believing will make it so because i
t isn’t about
belief but about
commitment to action or that
even strong commitment to action surely
works at all, and for many reasons, b
for for me and most of my students
over the years, learning to do it
that way worked pretty
well in my opinion. 
wonder it would work
that way for me
in sculpting
as well!

Nor does behaving as if require me
to make any part of my living doing it,
though that’s my intention now.

For 22 years after
the dawning of commitment
to sculpting, I continued to develop my
research and teaching careers,
led a full life
as a professor and beyond, but all during that
time I behaved, while I was sculpting, as if  that
were my life’s work and i
t made the difference.
Actions compete with other actions for time,
of course, and sculpting got far the
smallest slice of my pie. But
while I was doing it,
it was my life’s

I also discovered
how those activities complemented
and reinforced each other synergistically.
Having lived so long in the scientific world of
graphing, for example, helped me visualize evolving
sculptural forms in
3D and I wrote about that in
To Visualize a Stone and Graphing in Science and
.  Living with the reality that my body and
not my mind was doing the sculpting helped me
cherish the physicality of the hummingbirds
whose minds I wanted to know
in my research. 

I spent all the time I
could sculpting, which wasn’t much.
But a lot can happen in 22 years of 5, 10,
or 20-hour weeks of committed effort
and it
worked, so
when I retired I could to do it full
Had I waited it may have been too late,
either to do the quality of work I do now,
make as much of it as I do, or
keep doing it as I age. 

Too much
to learn, too many physical
and mental skills to develop, too hard
on my body to carve heavy materials with heavy
tools all day and sustain it,
too late in life to develop
strength, stamina, and resilience to sculpt professionally.
I have lots of developing to do but it’s working out fine so
Still behaving as if sculpting were my life’s work,
I intend to produce the highest quality sculptures
I can before I die and t
hat’s a commitment.

Not having read this story
carefully since writing it 12 years ago,
several things stood out for me as I edited it.
Though I clarified, shortened, or deleted some passages,
expanded others, added images, and formatted everything
as verse,
what I wrote 12 years ago about what occurred
37 years ago seems even more true and relevant
to me today. 
What happened in a moment
really has guided my development as a
sculptor all that time. Wow!

I also realized this story
is so intimately related to many other things
I’ve said, done, and written (maybe all of it) that i
f I
included links to all those stories, which are in all categories,
and pointed you to all those sculptures, you could read all
night and not get to the end of it. 
This wouldn’t be a story
about the birth
of a sculptor but a long list of
links to the rest of his life. 

Though I didn’t mention
‘behaving as if’ in
Repetition, Precision, and
, the T-shirt trick Glenn pulled on himself in the
hummingbird lab is a great example.  When he wore that shirt,
he behaved as if he were his own slave, did slave work well, and
didn’t worry much about the Big Picture.  When he didn’t wear
it, he did the work of scientists and did it well, whether or not
he had a robot working for him.  Part of his work as a
scientist was to get computers to do slave work for
him and he did that well too and he’s been
getting computers to do slave work
for him ever since.

He composes
symphonic music with no
slaves, and, speaking of apparel
for behaving as if, I don’t have my
Go Into Your Studio and Make Stuff
hat anymore, but that trick kept
behaving as if sculpting sharp,
powerful, and clear, as if
sculpting really were
my life’s work.


I told the story
of behaving as if  in the
Making magic together
in relation to sculpting, science,
and teaching & learning.

Edited January 2019

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