Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

home >> Teaching and Learning >> Work on the ugliest part!
posted on October 23, 2016 | Teaching and Learning, Sculpture and Art
Work on the ugliest part!

Lee Gass doing
what he has done
for eight tenths
of a century: telling a story to a friend,
fellow behavioural ecologist and
David Shackleton,
who took the picture.


According to
Nobel Prize-winning ethologist
Konrad Lorenz, the best exercise for
research scientists is to throw away three
favourite ideas before breakfast. 
That’s an
important lesson for scientists to learn – – an
important lesson for anyone. The best way
to support ideas, which we call hypo-
theses, is to try to break them
– – to
make them fail.

That’s what
good experiments do, and
it’s a big part of what science is about.
Rather than trying to prove our ideas, a
notion about science that’s dead wrong,
we set up situations that will prove
them wrong, if they are, and
see what happens.

scientists publish results
and interpretations, we are telling our
peers, in effect, that
we did our best to break
an idea but it survived.  So until someone finds
something wrong with it, it is worth
considering and might be useful. 

Scientists can
do a lot to break their ideas
early, long before experimentation
and long before seeking funding. 
assumptions may be wrong, for example,
or apply only in special circumstances.
They may embody hidden
internal flaws of fact
or logic.

contradictions that doom them
from the start. Someone else may
have done the work. 
All sorts of
problems can crop up.

In each
of those cases, it’s better
to discover problems ourselves before
someone else does and deal with them.
good ideas have problems, especially at
the start, and someone will
surely find them.

It’s faster,
cheaper, saves face, saves
time, and makes far more progress
to find them first and fix them
as quickly as possible.


While I was learning
to apply these principles in science,
I was also a serious sculptor. Maybe for that
Work on the ugliest part! became a
rallying cry in our research team for
finding flaws
in arguments early enough to abandon them,
experiments to test methods,
picking holes in
each other’s talks before we gave them.
We found a lot of flaws and were
proud of that fact.

Even in small,
strongly supportive communities
like that, communities that run on trust,
it’s embarrassing when others break our ideas,
and we’d generally rather break them
ourselves if we can.

That’s how
we did it in the lab, and
that’s how I learned to do it
in the studio.



“Work on
the ugliest part

was the best way I
of to
describe it.



In sculpting,
it’s always tempting
to work on the parts I like best,
others like best, or I think  or feel are
best.  Parts that satisfy, make me
proud, and invite me to
feel like a pro.

It’s so,
so easy to postpone
pushing past presently conceived
limits of future capability, for example
to avoid parts I think I can’t carve
or threaten to take too
much time.

Avoid them.
Don’t see them.
Pay them no mind.
Ignore them.  Deny
them for so long.

I feel that urge
with each new piece, just
as I felt the thrill of hot new
scientific ideas or of being
on a roll in teaching.

More often
than I like to admit, I’ve
put it off until the
ugliest parts
are so horribly ugly in relation
to the rest I can’t ignore
them any longer.

Nearly always
when it works that way,
it would have taken less time
and worked better in the long
run to have fixed whatever
the problem was before
it got to be one.


a lot to pay
to protect my ego
for a while!
The easy
way out might not
be so easy in
the long


predicament is
worse than it sounds, for me
and for all of us.  N
ot just in science,
art, but in teaching, pancake
making, and e
ssentially every
we do.

Just as
hypotheses and research
progams are more than the sum of
their parts, so are sculptures.
So too are
scientists, teachers, and sculptors.  We
are products of our work
as well
as its producers.  We are
works in progress.



are 3D forms and so are
the rocks they come from. 
As much as
anything else my sculpting may be for me,
and probably more, it is about form.
About the shapes of things.

It is about
how I think and feel
when I see, touch, remember,
imagine, carve, and follow forms.
bout how forms relate to other forms.
About whole forests of forms residing
|among forms,
whether or not I
mean those forms to mean

Works of the
kind I most admire, and
that I most love to make, appear in
my perception as single integrated objects
that “rest”, somehow, inside me.  As simple or
complex as those sculptures may be in the
number or arrangement of their parts,
they evoke emotion, often a sense
of motion, and a sense of
unity in me. 

This applies to
single figures, like Michelangelo’s
and Bernini’s Davids, to
Donatello’s Davids,
and to many other figurative sculptures:
Burghers of Calais, Bernini’s
Rape of Proserpina
, and the
Pieta of Michelangelo’s
in St. Peter’s.


It is widely
noted in critiques
that under Michelangelo’s
hand, women’s bodies be-
came “ugly” in his

If I ignore the
ugly parts, I can’t integrate,
or resolve’, a form.  In carving the
kinds of curvatures I most love to carve,
failing to integrate them is to fail to sculpt.
Failing to integrate any one surface
with each of the others is
to fail to sculpt.

It’s as simple as that. 

“integration”, “resolution” , and
“ugly” may mean formally, and they
mean a lot, they imply a kind of whole-
ness and simplicity. When my own
sculptures evolve in that

I’m ecstatic.


When great
Canadian sculptor
Bill Reid
referred to “the well-made object”,
and he referred to it a lot, I think this
is a big part of what he was talking
He just wasn’t interested
in art that retains ugly

Neither am I. 

I don’t think
the best work doesn’t have
ugly parts in its early stages, either,
because it does, right up to the end.
big part of the challenge in sculpting is to
detect those bugs and work them out.
Resolve them. Integrate the form.
Debug them, to use a term
from computing.


The novelist and poet
Michael Ondaatje made that point
in his book
The Conversations: Walter Murch
and the Art of Editing Film
, and I heard him
make it in a wonderful talk about writing
The English Patient.

edit, edit, and edit
their experiments before
they will work.

sculptures takes lots
of editing.  Just as with poems,
novels, movies, scientific papers,
and recipes, much of the editing
in sculpting, at least in mine,
is about the coherence
and integrity
of form.

We simply
can’t do that without
developing a practiced
eye for ugliness in
our work.



Here is an example.


In the original
stone version of Listening to the
, the long triangular shape of the stone
I began with, with its flat front and back, severely
limited what I could do with it.  I wanted it to be
a female form, but no real human form could
fit into that triangle, so I warped it
conically upward, broader and
heavier at the top.



Stone sculptors
always take stone
and can never put it
so our sculptures
always get
no matter what
we do to them. 



I took away
more stone from Listening
than I should have in one place.

Once I did it,
it was done and I
couldn’t undo it, and
the whole sculpture
suffered for it.

I had been
working on parts
that made me happy instead
of ugly parts, which I could
easily have done.

I failed to
notice a problem I was
about to make for myself until
after I made it. 
Because of the shape of
the stone, I was stuck with a low place
too low to get rid of and had to
live with the result. 



Don’t get me
wrong.  I love that sculpture
and so does Lu.  It’s her portrait
and her wedding gift
from me. 

point about ugliness
relates to the bronze series we produced
from the original stone

To make
a long story short,
going from stone to bronze
versions of Listening to the Wind
flipped me from subtractive to
additive sculpting of the
same sculpture.

I could erase that

filled in
that low place,
tweaked a few other
surfaces, adapted the form
to its new medium, and
fitted it to the top
of a rock. 

It was metal, not
stone, it was modified in signifi-
cant places, it was 25% smaller than
the original, AND it was still the same
What a revelation and a treat
and a joy it was
to be able to
erase mistakes!

But I can never
deny that I went too deep
in the stone. 
Why do I do things
like that in the first
place?  How?

Let me count a few of the ways.


If it ain’t broke,
don’t fix it

I get excited,
lose awareness of the Big
Picture, and do dumb things that
take a long time to fix.
All we can ever do
in subtractive sculpting is subtract, of course,
so anything I could do to a surface that is
already perfect is dig a hole in it.

I can’t fill in the hole,
I have to take everything else
away to get rid of it.  That takes
time, takes work, and makes a
smaller sculpture from
the same rock.


Think of it this way.


If a surface is evolving
toward perfect curvature,
‘one thing’ for me, perceptually,
and if I
carve a low place in it,
it becomes two
what it was before
and a dimple.

The only
way to get rid
of a dimple in stonecarving
is to carve away perfection until
the dimple disappears. 


deeper the dimple, the
smaller the sculpture will be
and the longer it will take
to complete it.


That is a law of nature in stonecarving
and there’s no getting out of it. 


Getting excited
is a good thing. I thrive on it
and it drives me on.   G
etting carried
away gets me dimples and other troubles
I wouldn’t have had to face if I hadn’t
fixed something that didn’t
need fixing.

Taking chances
in sculpting, yes.  But not
doing things that turn out to have
been foolish, and that I could
easily have not done
at all.

says it better than ‘excitement’
for me. 
I don’t give up my brain to
be enthusiastic, but s
ometimes I
do when I’m excited.

Some mothers
call that ‘overly excited’,
and so do some teachers.  I’ve never
known the difference between
excited and overly so.

Is an
“overly excited state”
a state in which kids do things
they agree later were foolish, admit
they’d seemed foolish at the time,
and thought of
not doing?
That’s how criminal
courts judge

Maybe it’s
that  overexcited kids
lose their minds, go crazy,
fail to keep
their wits
about them,
run wild.

Most sculptors aren’t kids and
we don’t have to be excited in

that hyperactive sense to
fix things that don’t
need fixing in
our work.
I meant
amounts to
the same thing.
I enjoy excitement,
wild abandon or what-
ever you want to call it and
it’s fun to get carried away.
I’m all for excitement, as
long as
I don’t lose
my mind

Enthusiasm is
different for me.  When I’m
enthusiastic, I can still pay attention to
what’s happening and I still have
my wits about me in respond-
ing to it.  I don’t lose
my mind.

I’m overly excited and
carried away,
I may zoom
in on details, lose sight
of bigger pictures,
and pay a price
for it later.


Enthusiasm is
excitement with my
wits about me.


take-home lesson
of ‘it ain’t broke don’t fix it’
is that i
f I’m going to dig a hole,
it pays to be aware of what
I’m digging it in.



If it ain’t
broke very much,
don’t fix it very much

Don’t overfix
Don’t dig holes in
holes to get rid of them.
Do you ever
fix things too much, like pulling two teeth
when you need to pull only one?

Sculptors talk with
each other about such things,
as do scientists and teachers and others.
Privately and with silly grins on their faces,
they confess such errors to their peers,
bragging about stupid mistakes
and what they learned
from them.

The only times
‘accidents’ like that happen,
as far as I can tell, are when I focus on
details, forget about bigger pictures,
and dig pits in perfection before
coming back to my senses.

Some wild
ideas don’t just dig pits,
They dig craters and
change landscapes
in ways that cannot
be fixed.

temptation gets the
best of me and I “have to”
go with a wild idea.  Sometimes
that turns out to have been the
best thing to do,
but not
often.  S
ometimes it’s

Why don’t I
make just small mistakes,
then find em and fix em fast,
like the
Saw Filer Guy did
in my story about him

I make
“mistakes” like that, just
as I’m “losing” my mind, I might
as well not even be there and
I’d be better off if I weren’t. 

when I’m doing one
thing, doing it and making
it happen,
I start doing something
before stopping the first
, and dig a hole to
dig myself out of.

I think of that
as losing my mind.



If two surfaces
ain’t broke but how they
go together is
, find out
what’s broke in their
relationship and
fix that


Say I want
two adjacent surfaces
to be symmetrical in some way,
or be reflections, warped reflections,
or whatever.  
If I develop those surfaces
separately, even if they’re beautiful in them-
selves, there’s likely to be something ugly
about their relationship.  Beautiful p
ners don’t necessarily go well together.
Keeping parts working well with
other parts is a challenging
and rewarding aspect of
sculpting for me.

Even with
something as simple as
the faceted carapace of
which is a set of planes, it took a lot
of tuning to make them compatible
with each other esthetically for me.



Ignore ugliness at your peril!

In my experience,
working on the ugliest part
produces better, more beautiful products
in the end and produces them faster.

That seems to be the way it is. 

It’s more fun
and less pain to nip ugliness
in the bud early, not let it grow
and deal with it later.  
If I keep working
on the ugliest parts, after a while I run out
of ugliness, can’t find any more, and
declare the sculpture finished.



This story connects
with essentially all the rest of
my stories. In an important sense, it
is the ‘how’ of them all.
I discuss an example
of my own failure to work on an ugly part
in my teaching in
Stories about Stories
and Making Magic Together

The idea that
we are products of our work
came to me through Carl Rogers, in
about 1965.  For him, the deepest, most
interesting, and most valuable kinds of
learning are transformative.  The
learning changes the learner.
Talk about rallying cries!
That one idea lit up my
whole teaching

Both Bernini sculptures
I mentioned are in the Villa Borghese
in Rome.  There is a wonderful story about
two versions of his portrait of Cardinal Scipione
, both carved in 1632 and both still in the
Villa.  After Bernini finished the first commission,
they discovered a fault that ruined the sculpture
(a BIG ugliness) so he carved another one.
The unveiling(s), as told by Bernini
biographers, was surprising.

It’s not always best
to work on the ugliest parts,
but we still can’t ignore them. 


Take knots,
for example, where limbs
come out of a tree.  I’ve been splitting
big rounds of western hemlock for firewood
With good wedges, an 8-pound sledge, and
a maul, splitting hemlock is not too bad, but
only if it doesn’t have many branches. 

Branches and splitting
don’t mix with hemlock.  It will not
make you happy to split hemlock through
branches because i
t just ain’t gonna happen.
mlock branches are ugly, ugly things
when it comes to splitting and you’ll
see how ugly if you try it.

Avoid branches
like the plague and split
the parts that make
you happy.

Enjoy hemlock
branches for what they are,
which is practically


Before writing
these ideas down many years ago

I discussed most of them at length with
Ken Lertzman, Glenn Sutherland, Lucretia
, Georg Schmerholz, Buzz
, and Jeff Hawkins.

Edited August 2022

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