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.  All I could carve were round things
like bears that took both 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

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 “Y
ou can’t carve rocks!  They’re way too
hard.”  “You can
carve these,” she said,
“they’re called soapstone,” and
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. 
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
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. 

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.

Adult male rufous hummingbird changing course, by Maria Klawe.


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.

I spent
fall term back east giving
talks about my hummingbird
consulting with colleagues about

research plans and ideas, and
writing scientific

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.

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 fretted: “Would
I ever again be able to
spend that much time carving?” 
thing wasn’t right and I didn’t
know what it was. 

It came
to a
climax the
week of my 40th birthday,
an embarrassing proportion
which I spent doing
arithmetic of this


2 x 20 = 40
What have
I accomplished?

2 x 40 = 80
I’d better
get a move on!


I stayed
up all night one
night reflecting on that.
ear dawn it dawned on me
that a
ll my life, I’d been carving
recreationally.  Carving
for fun, essentially. 

My problem
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


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?


I didn’t
understand fun very well,
but understood work and loved it.
was clear, it was simple, and I
could relax into the fact that
it was
always intentional. Work was
always about getting
things done.

I knew
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.

Usually, work
was more about challenge,
about competence and getting things
done, and about seeing if I could
do it.  And the money
made it better.



Those thoughts
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
my life. 

I committed to

Behaving as if sculpting
were my life’s work.

That was huge!

The difference
was immediate, dramatic,
and lasting, and before lunchtime
that day I had learned more about
sculpting than I had learned in
an entire lifetime
before that.

making it be “work”
made it work,
so to speak, immediately.

It heightened
my experience of the work,
for one thing, which made it clearer
and more intense.  That helped me attend
more mindfully to what I was doing
than I had before, to learn to
do it better, and to sculpt
more effectively.


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. 



Flying chips
of wood are shrapnel
tearing through air,
size, shape, speed, mass,
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 between bones.  fingertip
pads, adjustments of feet and
legs, and I remember. 


and this is the nature of
tools, this ongoing flow of sensation
links to the kinds of curves I carve.  M
y body
moves in certain ways to make certain forms.  Sounds
flying chips link to feelings in arm, back, and
leg as mallet nears meets tool.  Breathing.
Neck.  Feet against floor.
Feeling the forms.


I learned that morning
serve me still and well.  Many

are  obvious in hindsight, but in the
bright light of my new commitment
they became real and changed
my life  forever.

The more I
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 experi-
I’m not in the movie.  Only the
work, the working, and whatever
flows through
my mind.

Those realizations were HUGE for me!
They changed my life forever, empowered by a
commitment to behave as if.

experience, awareness,
and sculptures evolve together
in an integrated process.  A
ttending to
relationships among them as they
evolve helps me tune them and
perform them more

All I needed
to do,
usually, was
get up, get at em, and
get cracking!



I started
to carve Submission

suddenly that morning, and
I had no way to know it
would happen.

“Carve this!
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.

SubmissionPhoto by Ulli Steltzer.


What happened
that morning on Galiano Island
significantly shifted my development,
and most of the shifts were permanent.
enjoyed it  as much as I ever had and
did some of my best work over
the next three weeks. 

Since then,
whenever I’ve remember-
ed to behave
as if sculpting were
my life’s work
, whatever it meant to
me in the moment,
significant things
happened.  H
igh 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
develops out of it.

Nor does Life’s
require knowing what  pro-
fessionals must do to behave  profession-
ally, in my case in sculpting. But it requires
vision.  In my case, the vision was simple: to
do the best sculpting I could do that first
morning and the rest of the day, the
next, the next, and the next
days after.

After 40 years
of commitment, it
is still going


Imagine a virtuous
that is the essence of life-long
How many times in my teaching
career did I say things like the
following to others?


You want to
be a doctor?  Act like one,
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?


Commitment to
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. I
t 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 s
mall wonder indeed
that it would work 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. All during
that time I behaved, while I was
carving, as if  that were
my life’s work. 

And it made
all the difference. 
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
and Sculpting

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. 

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

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
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.

Not having
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 40 years ago seems even
more true and relevant to me today. 
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).   Y
ou could read all night
and not get to the end of it. 

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.  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 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
Making magic together
in relation to sculpting, science,
and teaching & learning.

Edited June 2022

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