The Mind Behind the Skull

Lee Downey is an inspiring man. With over 20 years of working in Bali, he has seemed to embrace everything about it while maintaining a world view.

Lee has a significant following for carving skulls. He and his crew carve them out of glass, meteors and bowling balls. They carves them out of things you never heard of, and do so expertly in painstaking detail. At first I thought it was a skull thing. And certainly there are enough skulls, including giant rodents and weird pigs whose lower teeth grow long enough to puncture the top of their skull. But as creepy as skulls can be, they always represent the mystery of creatures: what’s in that head?

But then we gazed onto a large chunk of amber glass. It looked like maple syrup sitting on the table. Lee mentioned it was a next big project: carving a

We sat down for some of his delicious homemade chai and the conversation developed. What was this Eisenhower thing about? What am I about? What’s our biggest problem in this world? In my personal working experience, it’s been shoes. We also discussed the perils of cars.  But then we gazed onto a stunning chunk of amber glass on the table. It was from the Manhattan Project. The more we discussed nuclear energy and bombs, the more I realized that he was extremely knowledgable on the subject and that these skulls weren’t just about mystery, but were also about sending out warning signs.

Lee is world-renowned for his craft. In fact Sting’s wife bought a piece from him for Billy Joel’s birthday. I believe it was from the “Bones and Stones” series below. Schwarzenegger was photographed for a Time Magazine cover wearing one of his skull belt buckles. But his mastery extends into metalsmithing and sculpture from fossilized mammoth tusks. 


His home is located within the studio. Perched on the peak of a magnificent and unspoiled valley, his home is a sliding giant glass wall.

Lee has extensive travel experiences. Finally I asked him “why Bali?” He quickly responded that there is nowhere else in the world where people can carve so well. This only affirmed my conversation with Cynthia Hardy.

But Lee’s personal story speaks volumes for integration with a community. He is highly knowledgable about proper documentation for wildlife artifacts. His Balinese business partner became a priest and now Lee’s home adjoins the temple. Lee still works with his original craftspeople, who live in this compound and enjoy health insurance. He has trained their children and is now witnessing a third generation coming. He integrated a local cafe/bar to share the valley view. He has a great Macaw keeping him company as he designs, manages, creates and researches. He also has a plan in place to reintroduce a nearly extinct bird population into the adjoining valley. There are few people in this world that leave me so inspired. Cynthia and I discussed this on the rainy scooter ride back and I felt I had witnessed a person who exemplified a poem by Whitman. At first I could only bring back the compelling excerpt: “…dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”

I got back to Ubud and found the whole work:

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

― Walt Whitman


One thought on “The Mind Behind the Skull

  1. Brent

    Sounds like quite an enlightening experience. I wonder what your answer was to his question as to what your whole trip was “really” all about. 😉


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