The Grammar of Sand

By Roberta Pucci with the contribution of Lucia Pec and Mascia Premoli

Cover image: Lucia Pec


Sand is an evocative and archaic material, formed over thousands of years by the erosion of rocks, therefore infinitely older than us. In some cultures it is associated with the desert, biblical events and ancient prophets. Sand is a symbol of the infinitely small and of the multitude.


We call it grain of sand,

But it calls itself neither grain nor sand.

Wrote Wisława Szymborska in her poem “View with a grain of sand”.

Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.

It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.

And that it fell on the windowsill

is only our experience, not its.


Matter does not have a name before it is born in the consciousness of a human being; in a sense, it begins to exist through our awareness. Therefore, we have the responsibility of activating an interaction, giving meaning, shaping and creating, and – at the same time – of considering the identity of the material, respecting and enhancing its characteristics.


With what actions can we enable a “dialogue” with the sand? With what tools? How can this material be transformed? Or rather, what actions do its characteristics suggest to us?

Sand is made up of billions of uncemented grains, that is, without a cohesive force that holds them together. It is therefore a collection of many, tiny separate elements.

We can experience this quality by simply letting it slide between our fingers or dropping it, even using various containers. Depending on the tool and the movement, the sand will fall differently, creating different types of textures and “piles”.

Images and workshop by Mascia Premoli

As a result of its graininess and the tiny size of the grains, the sand can accommodate any shape, making space for it and retaining its imprint like a “negative” (reverse) mold. Thus, we could say that sand has a short-term memory and can tell impromptu stories.


In addition, like all granular materials, sand does not have a shape of its own, but assumes that of its container. The boundary is given by the container itself. This makes sand an interesting material for playing with decanting and an equally interesting metaphor on the content-container relationship.


Who has never overturned a bucket full of wet sand to make a castle on the beach? Water is a key element of the grammar of sand.

In wet sand, tiny droplets of water bind the grains together, thus forming a more compact and moldable mass (at least within certain limits).

The water also tends to darken the sand because the wet grains has less light reflection (light is absorbed rather than reflected).


An expanse of wet sand constitutes an optimal surface to accommodate the imprint of any object. It is an always open invitation to create a visual composition, even with things picked up on the beach.


Art works by Lucia Pec

Wet sand can also be shaped with your hands. I really like observing the sculptures created on the beach, and over time I have noticed some recurring themes: reptiles, fish, turtles, mermaids, chairs and cushions, dinosaurs, castles, city plants seen from above.


Sculptures by Riccardo and Enea (father and son) from Florence, Italy

Nevertheless, a figurative theme is not necessary to begin or legitimize a creative process, on the contrary: the absence of a recognizable image can relieve us of performance anxiety and aesthetic judgments.

Why not interacting with the material just by relating to the surrounding environment, looking for connections through the shapes that the context suggests us?


Art works by Lucia Pec

In a smaller space, we can instead explore the traces of the movement of various objects and tools: how does the sand react? What kind of signs and textures are formed “by subtraction”?


Images and workshop by Mascia Premoli

Of course, sand also invites us to intentionally draw marks, to represent something or to write. A light table or overhead projector can amplify this process even more.


“Le Betulle” preschool atelier, Cavriago, Italy

All these transformations are always reversible. The sand, in fact, is strongly characterized by the sense of the ephemeral. Outside, the wind carries it away, models it, reminding us of the impermanence of everything. The beach is vulnerable to the elementary forces of the sea.


Art work by Lucia Pec

What is your experience with sand, how do you like to interact with this material? What feelings and associations does it evoke?


It exists in this world

colorless, sharpless,

soundless, odorless, and painless.


As for the poet Wisława Szymborska, also for each of us matter can become a tool for helping our thought to express itself and “take shape” through meaningful metaphors.


“My” summer beach on the Adriatic coast, Pesaro (Italy)

Many thanks to Lucia Pec and Mascia Premoli for their precious contribution.

It you are interested in the exploration of materials, you are welcome to join the Facebook group “The grammar of matter”.

A Flower Provocation

by Roberta Pucci and Suzanne Axelsson


Have a look at the photo below: it shows a set-up or “provocation” that is sometimes offered to children in preschools, generally associated with the Reggio approach. What is your first impression? My opinion is we can’t state it was effective or interesting for children if we know nothing about the context the proposal was offered within.

Why suggest drawing a flower to children? What was the relationship between the children and that flower? And then, according to the answers, why choose those specific drawing tools?

If I have reached the point where a flower is to be drawn, then I would observe with the children first. If the observation shows that the children are interested in the different shades of the flowers, then I would probably not use pens but allow them to mix colours themselves, with more appropriate art materials (like tempera, water colors or even oil pastels or plasticine).


If the interest was the form, then maybe just an ordinary pencil, so the focus was seeing size and shape rather than colour. Or I would just let the children interpret the flower themselves – choose different art materials if they want, because maybe it’s about enjoying the interpretation instead.

If the purpose is to support a child who is struggling with art or communication or some other particular need, a suggestion might be suitable: when a limited choice can be of benefit and offer a necessary structure… but then it is a specific support of helping a child to learn how to select when they are easily overwhelmed, with this structure being removed when they no longer need it.

Thus, every choice is not good or bad in itself.

Beauty, the aesthetics, is also an important aspect, but a beautiful looking proposal can not enable a meaningful process if it does not connect to the real experience of the child.

You are welcome to share your experiences about similar proposals of a drawing setting with a flower (or vegetable subject): why did you choose it? How did the children react?


This post was inspired by the interaction between Roberta and Suzanne, in reaction to Roberta’s post The 100 is there.


It is available in five languages as part of the Grammar of Drawing project, in a collaboration between Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci:

The Experience of Wonder

How can we investigate wonder?

I think that a direct, personal experience is the best starting point. So I went to my favourite public garden near home, where I love to walk or sit in a bench. I was ready to wonder looking at nature, as it often happens to me in that place; ready to catch pictures to share with you and to carefully observe all the process. 

But that morning nothing happened, even if nature was beautiful as usual… nothing . I was a bit disappointed and suspected that intentionality was an obstacle: maybe one can’t look for wonder. If you look for it, you can’t find it.

So the new plan was to retrace some of my past walks and to find out if there were some recurring elements, a kind of  list of clues, that characterizes those experiences of wonder. In other words the underlying question is: does a common denominator of the wonder-experience exist?

The first clue is easy and confirms my suspect about intentionality. I didn’t expect anything, I did not look for anything. Something just suddenly happened or I suddenly noticed something.

The second -ever present- clue is an inner empty space, needed for let wonder come in. My head was not busy or full of thoughts. Sometimes I was just too tired for thinking… sometimes it was Sunday or a daily break from work. Anyhow, I would generally call this quality a receptive, sensitive, welcoming emptyness.

Third clue: wonder happens through details and tiny things. It is delicate, it plays hide and seek and does not like haste or noises.

Clue number four: it is revealed through the senses, so it is mostly an aesthetic experience, not intellectual.

I could also state that it is connected to beauty, but the word “beauty” is too complex and general, difficult to define… What does it concretely mean? So a more useful question is probably about the recurring aesthetics qualities or topics that I associate to beauty.

I found at least three ones:

  • The wind or the movement of the air
  • A special kind of light (very warm but not too strong) that interacts with some surfaces, creating shadows and transparencies
  • And of course leaves. Not “any” leaf but “that” leaf, in that moment and place, seen from a precise point of view and through “that” light.

I wonder (in the sense that I ask myself) if everyone -like me- has got some specific aesthetics qualities typical of their own perception of wonder. Maybe these personal aesthetics elements are somehow connected to our roots, to the physical places where we come from or even to our very first encounters with the world.

Fifth clue:  I felt immersed in what I was looking at as if bounderies become less definied and for a split second, my ego disappeared.  I was not Roberta Pucci, atelierista, from Reggio Emilia, etc… but just my perception, an insightful, not-personal awareness. Also, the daily, usual perception of time changed for a little while, like a small oasis where time stands still.

This kind of feeling is as involving as fragile;  it can easily desappear, specially if I want to catch it by taking a picture or a video.

So here is the clue number six: taking pictures can be an obstacle for keeping a state of wonder.

Why? I think because -for taking a picture, for example of a leaf – I need to place myself “out” of the relation with that leaf, to take an external point of view, so coming back in my shoes, getting out of the connection and looking at the leaf from outside.

This makes me think to some educational context and some teachers that overwhelm children with questions or take a lot of pictures when noticing that children are deeply involved or attracted by something… Please let’s be careful and help children to take care of their precious moments of wonder. Yes, wonder can be the beginning of a meaningful learning… but it’s itself like oxygen for our soul and not only a pedagogical tool. 

Finally, a last question: where does wonder happen? Usually in nature, in my case, but perhaps there are some typical wondering-places for each of us?

Is wonder potentially everywhere, but it depends on our state of mind if we can access to it?

Can the extraordinary be hidden in the ordinary?

How can these clues and a deeper understanding of our direct experience help us to acknowledge, support and preserve the wondering experiences of children?

I would like to know to know what is your experience, hopefully adding others clues to this map. Well, we are coming to the end of this short walk… thank you for joining. I wish you to enjoy the experience of wonder and take care of it, with open eyes and heart.

This post is also available in video on RobertapucciLab YouTube Channel. A special thanks to Suzanne Axelsson for inviting me to think about this topic.


You are welcome to subscribe to Robertapuccilab newsletter for keeping in contact and staying up to date on the latest news.

The Grammar of Corrugated Cardboard

Following the suggestion of what I call the Grammar of Matter, we should try to observe things as if we were seeing them for the first time; with respect and curiosity, without already having a goal or a precise outcome in mind.

What about the language of corrugated cardboard? What are its transformative potentials? Or in other words, what transformations do its characteristics suggest to us? Let’s start with a small scrap piece, derived from a box of cookies.

I pick it up: the strips in relief are immediately an irresistible invitation to cut, while the two folding lines show where to stop cutting.

Now it can move in many ways, it seems to come alive, it becomes a tunnel, a millipede, a carnivorous plant…

Another action, generally associated with corrugated cardboard, is “rolling up”. If we combine it with cutting (or we put it in relation to other objects), various shapes can be created, in turn composable and combinable with each other.

On the left: picture by RobertapucciLab – On the right: picture from the book Créations en papier, mgf atelier

There are different kind of corrugated cardboard: as we have seens, it is used for small food packagings, while other colored ones are available in art supply shops, or you even can buy large rolls, generally used as industrial packaging.

What happens if we try to remake the same shape in a much larger size? A detail, a small decoration becomes a high impact presence.

Setting and workshop by RobertapucciLab for the public library “Il Castello dei Ragazzi” (Carpi, Italy)

The rolled strip that looked like a small sprout, can become a tree if using the maximum size of the roll. And then, more trees can generate a forest within a room… The setting of these images was designed as part of a creative workshop for a public library (in Carpi, Italy). Some tables were set with some materials and tools, ready to welcome adults and children to create colorful flowers for the trees.

“The grammar of matter” invites us to put the qualities and properties of a material in relation with the context around. Here is an example of how this can happen. One morning, the Swedish educator and atelierista Maria Kozlowska saw a large roll of cardboard standing in the storeroom and had the idea of making a corrugated cardboard labytinth for 2/3-years-olds children.

Pictures by Maria Kozlowska

It is a single length of corrugated cardboard that the children shape and reshape, explains Maria. The children form new “rooms” by pinching the paper together and closing into these spaces, alone or together. They open and close the rooms and the walls are changed by their actions, while organically shaped passages are formed.

By very actively investigating the material, children become aware of how their actions create new patterns and formations in the space. They also move their fingers on the corrugated cardboard wall and create sounds. In fact, the possibility of making noise with it is a typical aspect of corrugated cardboard.

“They are creaking footsteps” says Denise, the four-year-old author of this work entitled “The creaking house”, clearly inspired by the sound of material. The image is taken from the beautiful book “Mosaic of marks, words, material” published by Reggio Children, which clearly illustrates how children are able to be listening and in relation to the nature of the material they are using.

Pictures from the book Mosaic of marks, words, material, Reggio Children

The corrugated cardboard can fold and has got stripes: so the rainbow was a spontaneous association for Lorena, a three-year-old child struggling with a strip of cardboard and indelible markers. In most of their explorations, children spontaneously adopt an empathetic approach of curious researchers that we, as adults, can rediscover only with a certain, initial effort of awareness and intentionality.

Folon, Voyage brun, 2000

By what magical alchemy does the French artist Folon manage to transform an anonymous piece of corrugated cardboard into such an evocative and poetic seascape? I believe that for any professional, a respectful and curious dialogue with the material is an indispensable element to reach a good level both from an aesthetic and functional point of view, as demonstrated by many examples in the field of art and design.
The great Italian designer Bruno Munari reminds us that the observation of natural shapes is very useful to the designer, who gets used to choosing materials for their nature, for their technical characteristics, and not to use iron where it would be better using wood (or glass where plastic would work better, and so on).

There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.

*

Architecture scale model in a design exposition, MAXXI Museum, Rome

A special thanks to Maria Kozlowska for her precious contribution and beautiful pictures, including the cover one.


If you are interested in the creative exploration of materials, you are also welcome to join the Facebook group The grammar of matter.

#thegrammarofmatter

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