The Grammar of Stones

Paper and stone

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.

choosing a stone

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.

A broken stone

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.

Sculptures with paper and stones

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!

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

The Grammar of Matter

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 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.

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

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.

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

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.

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, 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?

all the possible ways to transform  a magazine

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.

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

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?

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

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”.

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 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.

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 “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. 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.

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

If you would like to share experiences and discussions about this topics, you are very welcome to join the Facebook group the grammar of matter. You can also subscribe to the neswletter in the footer below to keep updated on the latest posts.
See you soon for the next chapter of the grammar and enjoy your exploration!

#thegrammarofmatter