It is amazing how many ways a paper roll can be transformed.
Have you ever tried? I really had much fun, just using a so simple, waste material…
First of all, observe and handle a roll from different points of view, without thinking of any precise goal. What does it “suggest” you to do? The starting point can be whatever very simple action, like a cut. Then, see where it will take you and enjoy the process.
The simple action of cutting opens an endless range of possibilities, by varying the number, the direction, the width or the lenght of cuts, and then combining these variations.
What happens if the cut parts are folded in many different ways? Again, the possible transformations multiply.
You could try both a geometrical, mathematical approach (as shown in the image below on the left) and a completely random one, making new discoveries by chance.
For example, I found a shape just randomly cutting in different directions and that shape (image below on the right) inspired me to roll the cut stripes like waves. Then I explored this specific action (that was new for me) through several variations with other rolls, in a more systematic way.
It is also very interesting to investigate all the movements and sounds that are made possible by the transformations. This kind of process is led by hands and by the characteristics of the material.
As you can see in the video below, hands “are thinking”.
What about an encounter between the paper roll and another material?
How can they dialogue?
Several paper rolls or parts of them can be combined together for creating more complex structures.
We can also divide the paper roll into small parts and use them for create patterns.
What is the difference between using paper rolls for kids crafts vs exploring the grammar of the same material?
A kids craft is a a goal itself, a ready product that encloses the final outcome and the way to get it from the very beginning – so that the creative process is often a repetitive execution of instructions.
By exploring the grammar of paper rolls, on the other hand, unexpected paths will unfold through both limits and potential of the material. And you will probably come to some unexpected outcomes: the beauty of action is not lost!
How choosing materials for creative explorations and where look for them? In a shop, at home or in the whole environment around you? I think the art studio – the atelier, or the art classroom – is a metaphor of a meaningful, creative encounter with the world and not necessarily a room. It is a potential approach to all matter. For example, what about snow?
The very first approach I always suggest with any material is possibly fresh and new as it was the first time you see it: not already know what it is, but trying to have an encounter through the senses, the body, the movement, devoid of goals and thinking. We ARE matter, after all: no needed to always understand or create something. Can we just truly live a respectful encounter? Like a curious but discreet and gentle guest, observing and “listening” to the other side, instead of only take and use.
Snow, what or who are you?
How does it sound? How does your skin perceive it? How many ways you can handle it and with how many tools, in addition to your hands? How many kind of snow does exist – kind of consistencies, textures, whites? I was so surprised and amazed when Suzanne told me there are about 50 Swedish words for define the snow, some used by most people all over Sweden, some used in certain areas only or just for work, in order to recognize when there is a risk for avalanche.
Drivsnö – drifting snow
Djupsnö – when it is very deep
Fimmern eller fimmeln – very fine/small snowflakes at very low temperature, like glitter in the air
Firn – small, grainy snow
Fjunsnö – very light fluffy snow
Flaksnö – there is a layer of ice on top like a lid
Flister – fine grained snow that you barely notice but somehow gets stuck in your face
Knarrsnö – makes a squeaky sound when you walk on it
Nysnö -new snow
Slask – slush (melting)
Snöhagel – mix of hail and snow
Tö – snow piles that are left as its all melting
Upplega – snow that collects on the branches of trees
Yrsnö – snow blowing in all directions at once
Kramsnö – the kind you can make snowballs with (it means hug-snow or squeeze-snow)
Snow hides, plays hide and seek, but can also be terrifying in a storm and make getting lost. It can be both soft and hard, silent and noisy. It makes us wonder and wonder again… often connected to some special childhood memories. Can you recall one? I have some too… my personal experience is from the distance of very thick clothes, hat, scarf and gloves, like a little astronaut. So it was something irresistibly attractive but in the meantime difficult to reach and play with. Maybe this first encounters are connected to my contemplative approach I developed later. What is yours? Can you recognize and support different ways of experiencing?
Everything becomes softer, silent and blunt, or hard and creacky if frozen. Snow as a white, uncontaminated sheet of paper over the whole landscape, where signs, paths and maps of prints may appear.
Many authors were inspired by this magic, for example Aoi Huber-Kono with “Winter” or Bruno Munari with his famous “Cappuccetto bianco”, the white version of Little red Riding Hood, where the reader has got to imagine what is happening in the white pages. The personality of white can express itself to its fullest potential through the snow. How many shades of white can we “see” and name? Are we sure it is only white and there are no other color shades?
Snow is part of the wider environment, of course, and we should keep this connection in mind. There are endless possible ways, as we can see throughout the pictures of the post.
How can we create a dialogue between the snow and the natural elements of the environment? How many ways can the snow encounters a tree, considering its specific shape, size, “personality” and place where it stands? With snowballs, for example: and everytime the composition is different, related to that tree, group of tree or bush…
…or using some natural materials of the environment for making a composition over the snow, that serves as a welcoming support.
Snow can also become a material for drawing, by adding it on a surface…
…or removing it. How many kind of tools, signs and prints can we explore?
It is also a material to be modelled, for creating sculptures. Yes, snowmen of course, but why not a chair, a rhinoceros, the hand of the frozen giant, which emerges from the earth, or just a shape inspired by the material and the context itself?
Each transformation affects all the environment: it is like a dialogue though matter, shapes and colors; through nature and the creator.
Who leads, who follows? Where does the inspiration come from? Here below we can see different kind of examples: a pattern probably inspired by the snowflake structure but mainly processed by the artist (on the left) and a dialogue between a stone, snow and lades of grass that seems coming out from the shapes of the stone and the grass, from that specific encounter highlighted by the snow , through the artist as a link between them.
Now let’s shift from the whole landscape to a single snowflake. It is a so fascinating mistery, a world within a world. Each one is unique, there are not two identical snowflakes in the world. How is it possible and how does a snowflake form?
As Ian Stewart explains in his beautiful book “What Shape is a Snowflake?”, it is a tiny ice crystal that develops its first nucleus according to its molecular, inner rules. But then, while it is travelling from up to earth, through the atmosphere, it encounters specific conditions (of pressure, umidity, temperature, wind) so that every journey will be a little different and will provoke a different final shape.
What interesting questions, wondering and learnings within these micro-universes… how preserving this wonder in a educational context? How can we support children to develop their own investigation, without giving ready answers?
As educators and parents, these are important questions to keep in mind.
If you are interested to continue the exploration of the grammar of snow, I invite you to have a deeper look at the amazing work of the land artists Ceca Georgieva and Lucia Pec, of the educator, teacher trainer and author Suzanne Axelsson and the photographer Alexey Kljatov – that I deeply thank for letting me share their inspiring works.
But above all, if you are lucky enough to live in a snowy place, I suggest you to just welcome the snow as a friendly guest and to enjoy your encounter, without knowing where it will take you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I perceive every magazine as a rich storage with many shelves full of different kind of characters, environments, objects, words, animals. Have you ever used or offered magazines as a creative material?
First, just immerse your eyes in this richness, looking for pictures that attract you, observing carefully the details, textures, shapes, colors. Choosing an image from a magazine is a selection “from the whole”, like fishing from the ocean of pictures an item that, for some reason, calls your attention.
Cutting with scissors makes this selection a concrete action, by isolating the image from its context. It is quite a powerful action, made with an effective, sharp tool. From that moment, the image becomes alive, aquires her own identity and personality.
The various images can interact with each other from a “visual” point of view, by following a kind of visual balance and associations, and so creating an aesthetic composition. Other possible connections are “narrative”: what would the images tell each other? But these two ways can also go together, weaving a story of words and images: what if a huge mouse meets a tiny cat? Or if a fish is swimming in a forest, through the trees?
An entire story could unfold from a picture that sounds especially meaningful to us. During an activity with magazines with a five years old group, I remember a very shy and delicate boy choosing a huge kangaroo that was standing up as a bold fighter, while a little girl that was usually smiling, talking and laughing, chose a sad, sullen, defiantly dark-style teenager. I wondered if these children were silently spoken to their cut-out figures. I invited them to invent a story. In fact, the kangaroo and the girl of the stories were quite the opposite of how the children were used to appear in everyday life. I am sure it was a significant process for the children, both creatively and emotionally.
Magazines, along with collage technique, offer an endless playing and creative potential, that we can use according to our specific context and goals. Combining cut-out images, the real proportions and usual contexts of things are often changed, creating new surprising worlds.
A creative activity I love, is exploring a theme or a subject through its variations. In the examples abow, the subject is a Christmas tree, while below it is my good friend Esther (you can find her at robertpuccilab YouTube channel). She generally has a pretty minimal look, but I wanted to make her have some fun using textures, accessories and fabrics cut from fashion magazines.
Even a tiny detail has got its own creative potential. Just put it on a sheet of paper: what does it recall you? What sign could complete it, what shape could it become part of? Take a pencil or another tool and try to draw it…
Another interesting visual exercise (or visual game) consists of observing an image only in its shapes and colors, regardless of what it represents; then selecting part of it and transform it into something else – that is giving a new meaning. In the couples of examples below, I cut out two portions of the same picture to create the faces, seen in profile, of two characters that somehow are interacting. Of course, in this game, the initial picture could turn in different shapes, depending on the observer’s interpretation. How many images are hidden and “contained” in the same image?
The only parts I added are the facial details (eyes, mouth, eyebrow), that I cut-out from the same initial picture and glued on the second one. Very unexpected personalities came out that I could not have imagined by myself, without the inspiration of the starting material! I put together a serie of these cards, that I called “Face to face”, as an invitation to combine them and invent a dialogue between the two. How many other ways could we play with these cards?
As with any other technique or material, I think that the initial exploration of the potential of collage – quite free and for its own sake – can become an increasingly focused tool to express one’s uniqueness, through one’s own expressive style. You are welcome to share your works and processes for enriching this collage repertoire. Enjoy!
They are in almost every home, school and backpack. They are attractive and easy to use. It is not necessary to “draw something”, that is representing something recognizable (just a reminder for those who get stuck with I can’t draw or I don’t know what to draw).
How many types of points, lines and marks can be invented? In how many ways and patterns can these signs be placed on the sheet of paper?
How many ways can we cover an area with colour or create a shape?
Try to explore all the possible movements of your wrist, hand, arm and observe the traces left by the marker during the movement. You can also move or rotate the sheet of paper below.
Each sign can be repeated creating various types of textures, thinning out or thickening the signs that compose the texture. What is gradually taking shape in the sheet of paper, will probably give us new suggestions for continuing the work.
How many ways can points and lines interact? A point is a moving line, or as Paul Klee said, “a line is a point going for a walk”?
What is the difference between drawing through coloured lines and drawing through patches of color?
Who leades: the eye, the hand or the idea? Does a colour “call” another one?
In my studio, next to the markers, there is a box with small sheets of paper: some of them are already drawn on (and eventually joined together, like in the picture above). In some situations, where the participants do not know what to draw and need a stimulus for starting the process, this “kit” can be a useful support, providing a starting point easier than a large white sheet.
The setting and the way of presenting materials is an important aspect that can affect the creative process as well. How are the various colour shades presented? Are they all visible? In the case of a group, how do members have access to them? Also the container itself can influence the perception of the content. From which container would you prefer to take a marker (between the ones above) and why? You can find more about this topic in the post “Container and Contained” by Nona Orbach.
I noticed that sometimes, in groups where the markers are placed in jars in the centre of the table, the colours are not carefully chosen and the markers are not put back, scattering all over the table. By offering the markers in the centre of the table, on a long folded strip of thick paper (about gr 200), these inconveniences disappear by themselves. The paper strips are also very easy to fold or carry. If the markers are displayed on a shelf or used by one person at a time, shorter strips can be available for placing the chosen colours.
As Nona Orbach e Lilach Galkin wrote in “The Spirit of Matter”, The main characteristic of markers is that it is possible to achieve a nice result without much effort. They offer clean, aesthetic work, and are suitable for ornamental and decorative purposes. There is repetition in the workflow by opening and closing the marker and filling surfaces with short contiguous lines. This is significant for people who are intrigued and organized by ritual and rhythm. There is not much need for hesitation when working with markers; they afford pleasure from an easily created aesthetic outcome.
Finally, I would add that a marker’s sign can not be erased: this can be a bit frightening for some adults or older children that want to get a “nice” work. But after a while, letting go of these expectations can be very liberating and releasing, precisely because there is no way to adjust what you did, so just let it go!
Now I hope you are looking forward to take a marker and start your exploration… Enjoy!
This post is part of the project Grammar of Drawingby Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci. It has been translated in four languages:
Stones look similar from a distance… but looking closer, each one is unique, shaped over time by water and wind. Just taking it in your hands, the stone speaks to you through its weight, size, texture, color, shape, hardness, maybe its humidity, its sound. A stone appears so unchangeable, immobile, monolithic, indivisible. It is probably thousands years old. Each of them has a long story, maybe it was a part of a mountain or it traveled through the see.
The poetress Wisława Szymborska wrote a beautiful poem describing an encounter with a stone:
I knock at the stone’s front door “It’s only me, let me come in. I want to enter your insides, have a look around (…) “Go away,” says the stone. “I’m shut tight. Even if you break me to pieces, we’ll all still be closed.
The poetress continues to ask many times: It’s only me, let me come in. I’ve come out of pure curiosity. And every time the stone answers You shall not enter. You may get to know me but you’ll never know me through…
I do not want to write it all here, as I warmly suggest you to entirely read this “Conversation with a stone” by youtself, at your own pace. Anyway, this poem beautifully shows the gap between us – humans – and the stone. How do we face with this gap? Can we accept we can not understand something that is too different, too distant from us? Can we just welcome this natural limit, that depends on both our natures? What is our reaction when the message (of a material or of a person) is “You can’t enter here”?
Now, let’s imagine that, in a early childhood context, a child wants to color a stone. What would you suggest? Of course, there is not only one right solution, anyway, I think that if you had a “listening approach” towards the stone, you could easily make a choice that is is attuned and consistent with its essence. Probably, not covering it with acrilic paint, so colorful and plastic, or tracing it with markers…
… maybe immersing it in some water and colored ink. Each stone will absorbe the colored water according to its consistence, so that they will remain all different. Some will change a lot, some will stay the same, some will take a new light shade. I have nothing against ladybug-stones or faces-stones, and so on, but think that – if you do such a thing – you can not really encounter a stone or a ladybug.
Personally, I also do not like using any kind of glue with stones – as I do not perceive they are connected. I prefer to play with weight, balance, compositions. Also, when I present stones in a workshop for children, I do not like to provide glue but other materials, like paper, fabris, threads. As an example, I would like to show you a stand and a workshop I designed for a big event, many years ago.
It was dedicated to paper and stones, two so different materials… one so light and flexible, the other so heavy and fixed. Adults and children of every age could freely come in. They were invited to carefully observe the presented materials, and then, to choose some ones, collecting them in a bag.
How can paper and stones meet? This was the question that people were asked to investigate, sitting on a table with their chosen materials. The objective was not to have a final product but playing with the materials and their encounters, even if a final work often took shape as an answer.
Here, the grammar of paper met the grammar of stones. Before the creative process happens, the potentials of both materials were already there, but silent. While the material is transformed, its nature unfolds. In other words, it is a mutual enrichment, respecting the specific potential and limits of both parties.
Would you like to try? You can use any kind of paper you have at home, of any shape, as well as any kind of stones. You are also welcome to share your investigations… Enjoy and see you to the next chapter of the grammar of matter!
If you are interested in the world of the materials, you are welcome to join the Facebook group “The grammar of matter”.
Imagine you are seeing a sheet of paper for the first time in your life: who’s that? The sheet speaks to your eyes, only by its presence: color, shape, size, location in the space. Maybe it speaks to your nose by its light smell. Then for the first time you take it in your hands. It communicates through its texture, hardness or softness, consistency, humidity, weight, and also with its sounds.
If you are curious, with an open mind while observing and touching it, the sheet will reveal you its possible transformations. For example, you immediately guess you can fold or roll it: it seems the sheet itself, for its characteristics, invite you to do such actions, as other ones like crumpling or tearing. What objects and tools seem to be attuned to interacting with this material? Scissors, stapler, hole punch, needle, nail, fork… And why not water? In how many ways the sheet can be transformed with these tools?
Each one of these actions can be developed through endless variations. For example, as far as folding, you could use different fold’s sizes, inclinations, proportions, different shapes of the starting sheet, different rhythms… Then, you can combine all these actions: cutting and folding, wetting and crumpling, and so on. Moreover, choosing different types of paper each one will react differently.
You can see as even a simple material like a sheet of paper holds within itself an entire world, waiting to be discovered. BUT in every dialogue there are two partecipants. Until now, we have considered only the material. What about the other one (me, you or the child that handles it)? Every action on matter evokes some kind of associations, emotions or memories. For example tearing and cutting are probably perceived in different ways by the same person. Thus, each person has got some favourite actions she likes doing with a specific material. In the meantime, everyone will do the same action in her own way (with a certain speed, muscle tone, care, pressure, mood, focus, etc.). This is why every encounter is unique. Isn’t this amazing?
In the beautiful book “The spirit of matter”, Nona Orbach and Lilach Galkin deeply investigate just that: the connection between our inner world and materials. They write: Each individual has a way to internal dialogue, usually words, images and metaphors. Living a close relationship to art materials, we find ourselves conversing through them in our personal creative process, as well as when observing others’ development. Physical matter is not merely an object, tool, paste or powder. It is words taken from the concrete world, which undergo personalization and serve to express an internal world.
Now, imagine you wants to create (or you ask children to create) with a sheet of paper a specific product, for example a little boat of a certain shape. In this case, you will not really “see” that sheet in all its potential, as you are focused on your predefined goal and will use paper only as a means. Of course nothing bad with it… But the approach I am speaking about is something else. It is a mutual interaction in which both the two partecipants are playing, so that the material is not completely forced in a prior idea.
This could also be an interesting metaphor of a dialogue between two persons. If one of them is not interested in the other and only talks about himself without listening, whatever person he will have in front of him, he will say the same words. In the meantime, the other one will be totally passive and between the two there will not be any kind of exchange. Instead, being in relationship will open new and unexpected paths. Of course, there are many possible balances, symmetrical or not, between the two parts. For example, you could have a quite precise idea to realize, like a paper boat, but you will let the material suggest the better shape or dimensions, according to its characteristics.
So, how can you describe your dialogue with a material? Who leads, who follows? The leader and the follower can switch during the same creative process: how does this happen?
In the relational approach I tried to describe, the personality of matter meets the personality of the creator. Before the creative process takes place, both the potentials were already there, but silent. While transforming the material, you are making visible your unique essence; in the meantime, while the material is transformed, its nature unfolds.
Every human being holds within them a combined heritage of characteristics, likes and dislikes that make them who they are. Actions imprinted upon matter may represent this richness. All of these qualities, when assembled and marked down on paper, clay, etc., leave visual signs that create a unique ﬁngerprint. This essential imprint will develop and become enriched throughout our life, if given the chance. This is how the artist and art therapist Nona Orbach beautifully describes the unique essence that every person reveals through matter in the creative process. In other words, it is a mutual enrichment, respecting the specific potential and limits of both parties. An ecological, empathic approach towards world, to whatever big and tiny thing we meet.
How many shapes are hidden in a plastic bottle? Have you ever tried to break it down? Rings, cylinders, cones, hemispheres, spirals, towers, domes and others will unexpectedly come out of it… Then, these elements can be combined together in order to create more complex structures. Let’s play with them, without already having a specific goal in mind. The shapes themselves will guide us, revealing unexpected paths. It is a dialogue between us and matter, a mutual interaction in which the material is not forced in our “a priori” idea.
Some of the bottle’s pieces can be used as a module, that is a repeated element forming more complex structures. For example, I made a curtain among trees (you can see below) using a plastic ring as a module.
The interaction between colored plastic and natural or artificial light can generate interesting, almost magical effects.
After having explored “the rules of its grammar”, we will be able to use the material in a creative way, consistent either with its nature and our purpose in a specific context. Here is a short example: some pencil flowers I designed to celebrate the birthday of a public Library.
I did not have in my mind images of real flowers to be copied: the shape of the final flowers was inspired by the shapes and characteristics of the various parts of the bottles, recombining them. In many cases, the cap was drilled and used as a connector between the pencil and the plastic part. What is your favorite one? Many other species are waiting to be discovered… You are very welcome to send a picture of new flowers, in order to broaden a common Plastic Herbarium. Enjoy!
I would like to introduce you a material I love and often use with children: paper strips, that you can easily ask for free to printing houses as a waste material.
How can our personal artistic research – as teachers and adults – be an inspiration for children processes and not a model to repeat? How presenting the materials in a educational context? Do we show to children some examples or “techniques”? I think these are some central questions that not have only one always valid response.
Now imagine you want to present paper strips to a small group of 4-5 years old children, inviting them to freely play with this material and a stapler. How would you do it? Any prefiguration?
Here is my experience. In my case, I was not the theacher (or the atelierista) and children did not know me. One morning I just shortly introduced myself to the classroom. I told I was a professional, expert in transforming materials (that is the truth). For example, let me show you how I could transform a strip of paper. Have you ever tried?
I slowly pulled out a long stripe of paper and a stapler, as if they were very special things. There were 48 eyes staring at me silently. As I formed a circle, they shout: It’s a sun! A hat! (and I put it in my head) A wheel! (and I made it roll). Without speaking, I went on with other trasformations, letting children being involved in this simbolic game.
Finally, I told I would have liked to come back to play with them with paper strips. When I came back, all the children remembered me and were very excited. We worked in small groups of four children for about one hour. In the beginning, many of them asked me to show how to create a heart, a house or another shape they remembered. But I answered: Well, I am not sure of what I exactly did and how… Please try by yourself, go on, and I will support you as I can. Trying by themselves, children started to develop a personal process and then, most of the time forgot the shape initially asked.
Even if it was a very limited activity from the point of view of the available materials, it allowed the development of many different, rich and unique processes. (Despite limits or thanks to limits?)
I tried to make each child feel comfortable, welcome and free to approach the material. If the environment is “good enough”, if we (educators and teachers) are not worried about educational goals, products or parents’ expectations, every child will express his/her unique potential through materials.
This process is often not a linear, with a clear result consisting in a single, final work, like the ones in the images below. For example, the most significant part could be the sensory exploration, the spoken words, the movements of the body or other interconnected aspects. If a final product is missing or less noticeable, it will be very frustrating for those who consider the product as the necessary proof to make visible children’s learning. I think we should try to have a different, wider perspective. Here is a short story about it.
Alessandro, 5 years old, repeated the same sequence of actions all along: folding a small strip on itself and then letting open it again, observing what happened to the strip. He created many spiral shapes, that were very similar but every time a bit different by chance. At some point, he used this sequence of actions to invent a game: he rolled up the strip, gripped it tightly in his fist, hiding it, then he moved casually near another child without getting noticed and suddenly left the stripe free, with a kind of spring-effect, in order to scare the child.
It was an investigation of the moviment that the spiral shape can produce, then this moviment became a game. Moreover, the transition from closed to open, from compressed to expanded is also significant from a symbolic point of view. You can see as in this case, the product can’t be divided from the process. It also makes us remember the importance of repetition: to consolidate a learning process, to investigate, to observe small differences, to reassure, to be enough sure before doing the next step.
Why is it important to know the characteristcs of the material we offer, to work it with our hands before offering it to children? Of course, not for showing them our beautiful works and skills, but to make the best choice for them: finding the most suitable way to present the material, good relaunches and ideas to manage the most difficult aspects. For example, in the case of paper strips, you would expect that such a serial material stimulates the production of a very big quantity of similar works (specially in the beginning of the activity), so that the available space will become probably full of stuff.
Already knowing it, you will be ready to cope with this kind of messy and overwhelmed situation, trying to contain it in order to support the process. For example, suggesting to join some of the paper works, to collect them, build with them, looking for a story or some kind of composition. In this way, what was overwhelming and cahotic can gain a new meaning.
We should trust both materials and children. There is a reason or a need for whatever a child do or not do, and only from where children actually are, some kind of development can happen. Finally, I would like to end with some words by Nona Orbach, artist and art therapist, from her book “The Good Enough Studio”: A good kindergarten or elementary school educator needs to recognize the specific characteristics of each child. If an educator does see the child’s underlying qualities, they will be able to relate genuinely to each of them, and the children will feel that they are truly seen. If children are acknowledged and have a safe place to be themselves, they will also be less aggressive towards others. Children in such an environment tend to play and work for a longer period of time, and have better social skills. It is a profound need of our human nature to be genuinely seen by others; it assures us that we are loved and accepted as we are. Thus any child, truly seen, will blossom.
Every material has got a set of specific characteristics and qualities resulting from its nature, that defines its limits and potential as well as its range of possible transformations, reversible or not. It is what I call a kind of “natural grammar”, meaning some inner rules that can be empirically investigated. How? Observing and transforming the material with a friendly approach, remaining attuned to its nature, with the curiosity and discretion of a guest. If we do not want to impose a shape but are in a respectful interaction, the material itself will suggest us what to do. Take for example a sheet of paper.
Just taking it in your hands, you immediately understand it can can be rolled or folded. But how many ways? The exploration of this simple action opens up a world of variations: different dimensions, inclinations, proportions, forms of the starting sheet, and so on. Could we have imagined all these possibilities without a thorough investigation? Likewise, many other actions can develop (rubbing, piercing, cutting, rolling, wetting …) and be combined. The richer this inventory will become, the more possibilities you will have available to creatively transform the material.
Paper is a material we can find in several shapes, weights and textures: each kind has got its own grammar, with some characteristics in common and other unique, specific ones. Let’s think, for example, of a toilet paper roll: the actions of folding and cutting are still possible but influenced by the cylindrical shape and the weight of the cardboard, thus effecting different results.
The same goes for whatever material, artistic, waste or everyday, from the simplest to the most complex and structured, to some objects (like newspapers, magazines, old books and catalogs in the case of paper). But why should we study this “grammar”? Won’t it be boring using a material just for the sake of knowing it, without the goal of creating a specific product?
In fact, dividing the search process from the product, as if they were two completely distinct phases, may seem unrealistic, since they usually go hand in hand. However, this sort of “forcing” can improve our awareness. A previous, intensive exploration is a very useful exercise, both manual and cognitive, to discover all the potential of a material, as well as its limits. Thus we will be able to make the most of its technical and expressive possibilities, as we can see in some artistic works.
In the case of some classical artistic materials, such as clay, the “grammar” can mostly coincide with the “technique”: the set of rules and coded informations handed down over time, that we should know in order to avoid wasting material or for some complex works. For example, as far as clay: before cooking a piece, we need to know how to prevent air bubbles from forming, or if we want to attach pieces to each other, we need to know how to create the “slip”, and so on. But, in addition to this academic knowledge, it is still important to directly explore the material by our hands, to understand how it can be transformed: through what actions? With how many variations can each action be modulated? How does the material react? With what results?
Following a gradual increase in complexity, our exploration could go on with the encounter between two materials: what possible dialogues between two languages? The encounter with “diversity” and the search for possible interactions highlight the two (or more) specific identities of the materials – as well as the creator’s one – and suggest unexpected solutions. Maybe here there is an interesting connection: can the materials represent significant metaphors of our relational patterns? There are not simplistic and linear interpretations but subtle correspondences between external and internal world, between materials and interiorities, which constitute the core of art therapy. You can find more about this in the post “Dialogue with a sheet of paper”.
At all levels, from the educational field to the industrial design of an object, using a material with a respectful approach towards its nature generates a more authentic, ecological relationship with it, as well as a more pleasant and coherent aesthetic result. As Bruno Munari explained in his book “Da cosa nasce cosa”, a good way to learn this approach is by observing nature. Simple shapes like a drop of water, or more complicated ones like that of the praying mantis, are all built according to laws of constructive economy. In a bamboo cane the thickness of the material, the decreasing diameter, its elasticity, the arrangement of the nodes, all of these respond to precise economic laws: if it was stiffer it would break, more elastic it would not bear the weight of the snow. There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.
For example, the traditional blown glass bottle has a logical form in relation to the material: in fact its shape is nothing but the shape of the drop of molten glass, dilated by the blower. This means that it is a logical form, where the thickness is uniform over the entire surface, such as in soap bubbles. You can’t make a square bottle with blown glass, because the square shape is unnatural compared to the expansion process of this incandescent magma which is glass.
Thus, it seems that an “exact” thing is also beautiful. This is why the observation of natural forms is very useful to designers, who learn to use materials for their technical characteristics, according to their nature, and not to use iron where wood would be better, and so on. I would like to add that it will be very useful to anyone interested in discovering the grammar of matter: the natural laws that allow us to use materials respecting their limits and enhancing their potential.