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
I’ve been carving
since I was too young to carve.
Mom 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. All I could carve were 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.”
were as fascinating as her
giraffes. They were only soap, but
were as interesting in their curliness as
the 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 “You can’t carve rocks! They’re way too
hard.” “You can carve these,” she said,
“they’re called soapstone,” and
it was magical.
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, how to slice thin slices of apple
without cutting my thumb, and how to
carve balls in cages (see Let me
tell you a story about my
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 my 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.
If you think
that’s bad, check this
out. It’s the same story and
I think it’s wonderful.
When Maria Klawe was
Vice President and Dean 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. That changed
dramatically during the second half
of my first sabbatical leave
from the university
in spring 1982.
fall term back east giving
talks about my hummingbird research,
consulting with colleagues about
research plans and ideas, and
In stark contrast, I
spent most of February and March
house-sitting on Galiano Island doing nothing
but carve. Graduate students could visit me at any
time, but otherwise I didn’t think much about science
or go to town at all. All day every day, I carved in
a makeshift outdoor studio and listened to the
eagles scream. It was much more than
a wonderful experience.
half way through
my time on the island, I
realized that though I was having
a good time carving, work progressed slowly,
and I fretted: “Would I ever again be able to
spend that much time carving?” Some
thing wasn’t right and I didn’t
know what it was.
to a climax the
week of my 40th birthday,
an embarrassing proportion
of which I spent doing
arithmetic of this
2 x 20 = 40
2 x 40 = 80
get a move on!
up all night one
night reflecting on that.
Near dawn it dawned on me
that all my life, I’d been carving
for fun, essentially.
with that was that though
I knew what fun was and had
had lots of it, I’d never really understood
what fun was about. I didn’t “get”
doing things for that reason.
What was my
reason for sculpting?
Beyond having fun, why
did I do it? What, really, did I
get out of doing it, and what
did that have to do with
how well I did it?
understand fun very well,
but understood work and I loved it.
Work was clear, it was simple, and I
could relax into the fact that it was
always intentional. Work was
always about getting
that for many of us
and maybe for most, work
was mainly about money and
they didn’t like to do it very much.
But since I’d been old enough to rake
leaves, 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 money for me.
was more about challenge,
about competence and getting things
done, and about seeing if I could
do it. And the money
made it better.
swirled all night that night,
and as my night dawned into
my day, my sculpting became work,
not play, and I committed to
something that changed
I committed to
Behaving as if sculpting
were my life’s work.
That was huge!
was immediate, dramatic,
and lasting, and before lunchtime
that day I had learned more about
sculpting than I had learned in
an entire lifetime
making it “work”
made it work,
so to speak, immediately.
my experience of the work,
for one thing, which made it clearer
and more intense. That helped me attend
more carefully to what I was doing
than I had before, to learn to
do it better, and to sculpt
If I fully
attended to everything
I did as I worked, I thought, and
to everything that happened because of
it, the work would tune itself, adapt itself
to new tools, methods, media, and
forms and improve, as every
other kind of work I’d
done had done.
of wood are shrapnel
tearing through air, declaring
size, shape, speed, mass, rotation,
and path. That reveals wood quality,
hardness, and grain, tool sharpness and
angle of entry, mallet weight, and the
timing, angle, and power of the blow
and in less than the blink of an eye,
one chip is gone and another
is on its way.
Every part of
my body engages in some
way in every stroke I make, and
that is necessarily so. I feel movements,
forces, angles among bones. fingertip
pads, adjustments of feet and
legs, and remember.
and this is the nature of
tools, this ongoing flow of sensation
links to the kinds of curves I carve. My body
moves in certain ways, changes certain media
certain ways to make certain forms. Sounds of
flying chips link to feelings in arm, back, and
leg as mallet nears tool. Breathing.
Neck. Feet against floor.
Feeling the forms.
I learned that morning
serve me still and well. Many
of them seemed obvious in hindsight,
but in the bright light of commitment
they became real and changed
my life forever.
get into the work,
the less aware I am of
the passage of time, or of
myself. When I’m really into it,
I’m not even there in my own
experience! I’m not in the movie.
Just the work, the working,
and whatever flows
Those realizations were HUGE for me!
They changed my life forever, empowered by a
commitment to behave as if.
and sculptures evolve together
in an integrated process. Attending to
the relationships among them
as they evolve helps me tune
them and perform them
All I needed
to do, usually, was
get up, get at em, and
suddenly that morning and I
had no way to know it
cried Sandy Riley, laughing as
he pitched a round of wild cherrry firewood
at me, bouncing it up the drive. Back in his truck,
still laughing, he rattled on down the road
to split and stack the rest of it.
Submission. Photo by Ulli Steltzer.
that morning on Galiano Island
significantly shifted my development,
and most of the shifts were permanent.
I enjoyed it as much as I ever had
and did some of my best work
ever the next three weeks.
whenever I’ve remembered
to behave as if sculpting were my
life’s work, whatever it meant to me in
the moment, significant things happened.
High on a studio wall, a banner reminds me.
Behaving As If implies
no degree of competence at all. It
isn’t about competence but commitment
and competence is what results.
Behaving Life’s Work
require professional knowledge
of what it is to professionals to behave
professionally, in my case in sculpting.
But it requires a vision. In my case, the
vision was nothing beyond doing the
best sculpting I could do that first
morning, the rest of that day,
and the next and the next
and the next days
after, and it’s
Imagine a virtuous
cycle that’s the essence of life-long
learning. How many times in
my teaching career did I
say things like the
You want to
be a doctor? Act like one,
starting now. Whatever that means
to you in the moment, act like one
and see what happens.
You want to
be a research scientist? Act
like one, starting now. Let your
ignorance and curiosity be your guide
to knowledge and understanding,
and see what happens.
You want to be a teacher?
Learn from your own learning,
share it with others, starting now,
and see what happens.
How else could it ever be?
behaving as if, despite never
quite knowing how to do it best, is
important, I think, not just in sculpting,
but in all learning and all relations among
people, and for many of the same
kinds of reasons.
That does not mean
that believing will make it so.
It isn’t about belief, but about commitment
to a way of acting in the world. For me and for
most of my students over the years, learning
to do it that way worked pretty well, in
my opinion. It is a small wonder
indeed that it would work
for me in sculpting
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. All during
that time I behaved, while I was
carving, as if that were
my life’s work.
And it made
all the difference. Actions
compete with other actions for time,
of course, and sculpting got the least of
my time. But while I was carving,
carving was my life’s work
and it made the
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
vice versa. I wrote about that in
To Visualize a Stone and
Graphing in Science
living with the reality
that my body and not my mind
was doing the sculpting helped me
cherish the physicality of the wild
animals whose minds I wanted
to know in my research.
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.
Then I retired
two years “early” to do it
full time. Had I waited, it may have
been too late either to do the quality of work
I do now, to make as much of it as I do, or
to keep doing it as I continue to 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
Seventeen years later
on the cusp of my 79th birthday,
I still have lots of developing to do
but it’s working out fine so far. Still
behaving as if sculpting were my life’s work
and still not quite knowing how to do it,
I intend to produce the highest
quality sculptures I can
before I die
And that’s a commitment.
read this story carefully since
writing it in 2007, several things stood out
for me in editing it. Though I clarified, shortened, or
deleted some passages, expanded others, added images,
and formatted everything as verse, what I wrote then
about what happened 39 years ago seems even
more true and relevant to me today. What
happened in that moment really has
guided my development as a
sculptor all that time.
I also realized
that this story is intimately related
to many other things I’ve said, done, and written
(maybe to all of it). You could read all night
and not get to the end of it.
Though I didn’t mention
‘behaving as if’ in Repetition, Precision, and
Chaos, 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. He did that well too and he’s been
getting computers to do slave work
for him ever since.
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 hat trick kept
“behaving as if” strong, sharp,
and clear, as if sculpting
really were my life’s
And it has been.
I told the story
of behaving as if in the
video Making magic together
in relation to sculpting, science,
and teaching & learning.
Edited January 2021