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4 A Mode of Thinking

"The skilled workman is taught by his materials, and their resources and qualities enter through his hand and thence to his mind.”

— The Wheelwright’s Shop, George Sturt 


Jake Gillie loading a block of Portland limestone, EnglandA full-slew excavator operator manouvers a block of limestone in the Three Castles quarry, Kilkenny, Ireland


A quick overview of all the activities of sculpture shows that it embodies several distinctly focused processes that are comprehensive enough to be considered a distinct way of thinking.

1 Carving, for instance, actually trims a world into existence. Modelling builds up a shape bit by bit until it occupies a specific morphic field.

2 Mould making ignites a specific anxiety of attention because after once running foul of undercuts a craftsman’s sensitivity towards the angle of approach is forever on high alert.

3 Transforming flat material into a complex three-dimensional form leads to an understanding of how the flat bell shape found in clothing patterns can be sewn together to make a normal looking sleeve.

4 Constructing buildings leads to a sensitivity towards weight-bearing possibilities.  

5 Rigging and moving heavy objects refines the skill of balance and equivalent weights.  

Sculpture is so rich in different modes of thought that early exposure to sculpture seems to set the stage for further learning.

What sculptors grow to believe is that actions and ideas can sometimes be interchangeable.   Richard Sennett streamlined the theme of his book The Craftsman by saying “Making is thinking,” This echoes an idea introduced years earlier by George Sturt’s 1923 classic A Wheelwright’s Shop. ‘Making is thinking’ sounds like a manifesto, but it is even more than that.  It is a beginning. The next step is to see how different ways of making filter and program raw material in specific ways, and in so doing evolve different modes of thought.

How is it possible to identify a mode of understanding?  Does it structure our inventory of responses; change a pattern of balance; have a ‘grammar’ that determines specific internal relationships? Does it transform our insights in order to reveal what might otherwise be obscured and perhaps obscure something in return? How does a mode of thinking deal with things unexpected or out of the ordinary?  How does it handle crisis, for instance, or boredom? Are conceptual structures spontaneously generated? Does a mode of thought consume energy, or transform it from other sources?


Mason working in Qu Yang workshop, ChinaA granite carver dextrously uses and angle grinder to carve a capital in granite.


Thinking is primarily reactive because it performs an action on received information; thinking is a tool that processes what is already there. The philosopher Robert Sokolowski pushes this concept further. “Thinking is not something we do entirely on our own,” he says, “we are allowed to think by what our thoughts are about.”  

Thinking is a process of multiple re-positioning in hopes of revealing previously unrecognized connections. Thinking enriches any situation through which it passes. Thinking does not draw attention to itself. It shifts all awareness onto the subject of the thought. Thinking has a reputation of being solitary, yet modes of thinking — like skills — evolve collectively through generations. We learn to think for ourselves, and for others, even, sometimes, through others 

Where thinking is reactive, modes of thinking are adaptive. A mode of thinking joins with intelligence for short periods of collaboration. Both are impermanent. The law of thinking must be unstable because thinking responds to experience, changing as the situation or the thinker changes. Without this flexibility, the same approach might be applied to everything, and the risk of stagnation would set in. This is one of the main challenges of education. 

Curiously enough, thinking does not always need to be knowing. It is possible to respond creatively without consciously understanding the situation. Tacit skills function covertly while working out useful solutions. Sometimes these ‘intuitions’ are interactive and creative and other times they are simply repeating received information. The task is to discern which is which.

Even within the single discipline of carving more than one approach can be discovered.  Progressive apprehension is a characteristic of all carving but it can be seen most clearly in relief carving: where something is approached, then approached closer, then approached closer still. Each ‘remove’ is also a move and a consolidation. Each step first anchors the form and then moves it toward the next state of flux. This sequence can be experienced as physical expansion, or as a magnification of detail, or as increased cognizance. As successive planes are carved into the stone, they push the ’wilderness’ of the raw and uncultivated background further back. The creation of increased cognizance is something that carving shares with observational drawing. With each new step it is possible to see things that could not have been seen before.

Relief sculptures live closer to the plane than objects that are fully in the round. Intervals that are physically small can be powerful in some reliefs but would probably be disregarded in a fully resolved three-dimensional object. In the right situation a difference even as thin as a sheet of paper will catch and modulate the light in a way that would otherwise never be seen. Distance becomes relative rather than absolute.

Change happens constantly in stone carving. With such persistent change it is useful to find any stability, some unchanging point of reference. This might be a measurement taken from the edges into the center. The absolute nature of each stone’s dimension is a fixed boundary.

In an irregularly shaped stone this would be more difficult. The stable reference can be an invisible axis established with the aid of a plumb line.  When this runs through the center of a randomly shaped stone every action can relate without ambiguity to its true vertical.  Very little else is needed. It bypasses the need to square up a block into flat surfaces as a screen for the projected profiles.

Relief carving finds its stability by referring to either the front plane or the back plane. All depths are ‘measured’ from one of these ‘points’ of reference. When carving relates to the front plane it will continue to do so even when most of that surface has been carved away. 

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