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”.

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

Dialogue with a sheet of paper

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.

“Folding Techniques for Designers” by Paul Jackson; “Il gioco creativo – La carta”

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?

Photo by Orit Jacobson

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?

Pre-schools teachers from Fano, Italy

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.

Photo by Nona Orbach

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.

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How can we play with paper strips?

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.


transforming paper strips in a creative worlshop for children

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.

children's works with stripes of paper

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.


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The Grammar of Matter

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 impose a shape but are in a respectful interaction, the material itself will suggest us what to do. A sheet of paper, for example.

all the possible ways to fold a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book ” Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form ” by Paul Jackson

Just taking it in your hands, you will immediately guess it can be rolled or folded. In how many ways? The exploration of this simple actions open up endless variations: you can try different dimensions, inclinations, proportions, forms of the starting sheet, and so on. We couldn’t imagine all these possibilities without an hands-on investigation.

The same applies to many other actions, that we can develop (rubbing, piercing, cutting, rolling, wetting …) and combine. The richer our inventory will become, the more available choices we will have for creatively transforming the material.

some possible ways to transform a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 1 La carta” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Paper comes in several shapes, weights and textures: the grammar of each type of paper has got some characteristics in common (with all the papers) and some different, specific ones. Let’s think, for example, of a toilet paper roll: the actions of folding and cutting are still possible (like in a sheet of paper) but influenced by the cylindrical shape and the weight of the cardboard, thus effecting different results.

all the possible ways to transform  a toilet paper roll

The same goes for whatever material, artistic, waste or everyday, from the simplest to the most complex and structured one, to some objects (like newspapers, magazines, books ord catalogs in the case of paper).

But why is it important to explore the “grammar” of a material? Won’t it be boring using a material just for the sake of it, without the goal of a specific product?

all the possible ways to transform  a magazine

A deep exploration of the identity of materials is really enjoyable and useful to discover all their transformative potential, that than can be used for whatever goal or context. Thus we will be able to make the most of its technical and expressive possibilities.

Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj

In some cases, such as clay, the “grammar” mostly coincides with what we call “technique”: a set of rules and coded informations handed down over time, necessary for more complex works. For example, before cooking a piece of clay, we need to know how to avoid air bubbles to prevent the piece from breaking, and so on. But, in addition to this knowledge, it is still important to directly explore the material firsthand, for understanding its nature: how can it be transformed? Through what actions? How does the material react? With what results?

some possible ways to transform a piece of clay
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 3 La ceramica” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Following a gradual increase in complexity, our exploration can go on with the encounter between two or more materials: what possible dialogues between two languages and grammars? The encounter with “diversity” reveals even better the specific identity of each material and brings unexpected solutions. Maybe these dialogues between materials can represent a significant metaphor of our relational patterns as human beings. Of course, there are not simplistic and linear interpretations, but subtle correspondences between external and internal world, very interesting to be deepened. You can find more about this in the post “Dialogue with a sheet of paper”.

some possible ways to use clay and cardboard together
some possible ways to use clay and other materials together
Atelier of the Loris Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia

At all levels, from the educational field to the industrial design, 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”, we can learn this kind of approach 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.

The orange fruit as example of perfect packaging by Bruno Munari

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.

Picture from the book “Da cosa nasce cosa” by Bruno Munari, Laterza

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.

Discovering the grammar of matter allows us to use a material respecting its limits and enhancing its potential. It allows an meaningful dialogue with matter, for anyone interested in a creative and interactive relationship with the world.

how to represent trees with a string
Picture from the book “Saremo alberi” by Mauro Evangelista, Artebambini

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