Monday, April 9, 2012


The Noodle Forest, Phoenix Children's Museum

Years ago, I went to a party to celebrate a friend's retirement. I remember nothing of the dinner, but I will never forget the dessert. It was a spectacular mound of fresh grapes on a huge, 2-foot diameter brass platter. That dessert has stayed with me and framed a guiding idea.

One thing in great abundance

Cooks, artists, gardeners, makers, designers, builders, and teachers are attuned to and inspired by the possibilities of materials and objects in vast quantities. Like my well-remembered great grape dessert, many of the experiences, encounters, and places we recall and reflect on, admire and experiment with in museums, gardens, and studios are inspired by and accomplished through the potential of one thing in great abundance.

This is not about extravagance or being wasteful with materials. In fact, often the objects are simple, humble, or discarded. Toothpicks, sticks and LEGO bricks; blocks, socks, and sticker dots; seeds, sand, and rubber bands; plastic caps and bubble wrap; paper clips and Styrofoam bits.

When we are used to seeing objects in pairs or by the dozen, a marvelous quantity of one thing captures our attention. A migration of Monarch butterflies is awe-inspiring. Thousands of frogs hovering on lily pads in the picture book, Tuesday open our minds to absurd possibilities on an ordinary day. Dozens of Dale Chihuly glass anemones on the 140-foot Mendota Wall at the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center make us pause. One hundred thousand sticky notes covering a wall in Vanderbilt Hall in New York’s Grand Central Station dramatically shifts our sense of what a 3’x3’ square of paper with a sticky edge is and can be used for.

Recently I walked into Tom’s Toys on Market Street in Charleston after seeing sets and sets and sets of KAPLA blocks through the window. More gallery-like than store, Tom’s displayed blocks built into marvelous structures along the walls. Many more were spread out across a big blue rug. Building projects at different stages of construction, showed traces of others’ building experiments, imaginations, and memories of structures. The block sets being bought and taken home looked incomplete compared to the active building site in the store.

Besides the jolt of seeing magnificent quantities, interacting with them engages us in new ways, for longer, and often at a deeper level. The City Museum in St Louis (MO) is fascinating in part because it brings together a great array of objects–wooden rollers, bowling balls, terra cotta tiles, doorknobs–in impressive quantities. It uses their functional, and design qualities in inventive ways to create a remarkable and memorable environment that engages visitors in extensive exploration and discover.

Multiplying Possibilities
Messing about with an unusually large quantity is a whole lot richer than making do with modest portions. Several years ago I saw a video of a small group of toddlers exploring three 25-pound blocks of clay introduced one block at a time. For more than 45 minutes, the toddlers intently explored the clay and its properties using no tools except their bodies. With very little toddler talk among them, they pushed up against, patted, poked, and pinched the block of clay that stood about as tall as they were and much more solid. The addition of the second and third block of clay extended the toddler’s curiosity, exploration, and testing the material and what it might do in response to their actions. No hand-sized hunk of clay could have come close to the holding power of the clay mass for these toddlers or for most adults.

Assembled quantities of one object or material can reveal its properties and afford new possibilities and experiences that often are very different. Sitting on one small plastic ball is downright uncomfortable. Sitting among thousands of plastic balls, however, we are immersed; we sink, we slip, we slide over, and swim through the balls.  Balls roll over and under one another, shifting under our weight. A paper cup becomes a plane when massed and connected as Aphidoidea–a collaborative think tank of designers based in Los Angeles–does. Suspended from the ceiling it becomes an undulating wave.

Scott Weaver's Rolling through the Bay
The slim proportions of a single toothpick are not impressive as a building material. Yet, one hundred thousand toothpicks when bundled, joined, arranged, and glued create Rolling Through the Bay, a 9’ tall, 7 ‘ long and 30” wide kinetic sculpture. Artist Scott Weaver’s ingenuity and 3,000 hours of dedicated work manipulated the toothpick’s structural and sculptural possibilities to shape familiar San Francisco landmarks and pathways that also allow ping-pong balls to roll across the Golden Gate Bridge and down Lombard Street.

Our perceptions of an object and its context change when experienced in enormous quantities. Even the simple sticker dot is transformed. The artist Yayoi Kusama invited children to “obliterate” a completely white environment with colorful sticker dots in her installation at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. With dot after dot and layer upon layer, the figure ground relationship of the room reverses; a pointillist effect emerges. One testimony to the power of abundance is the countless times this fascinating installation has shown up and been noted on FaceBook. One image appears on the cover of the Spring 2012 Journal of Museum Education. 

Photo: This is Colossal
Vast quantities of something seem to confer permission to explore freely, take risks, and make mistakes. A generous supply of cardboard and duct tape allows us to follow our ideas and show our thinking to ourselves and others. We can fiddle with and keep active alternative ideas about spanning distances. We can test and compare two designs for reaching great heights. We can try out this hunch for correcting a tilt, and then that one. We can move ahead with one idea while thinking about how to reduce the wobble. We can incorporate the results of our small experiments into one structure or the other. We enjoy the luxury of backing up and starting over because the materials are there and are plentiful. 

A kind of social space forms around impressive quantities of materials. Eager to explore the materials, we work solo, parallel, in pairs, and in groups. We connect with others, letting the imaginations, traces of previous experiences, and quick experiments of others rub off on us. Ideas spread. The lively building activity at the National Building Museum LEGO room provides a glimpse into this dynamic fed by abundance. In Building blocks: What LEGOs can teach us about rebuilding our cities Alex Gilliam notes the thousands upon thousands of LEGOs and the consistently diverse groups of people that engage in building. He also observes and describes a collective building pattern. Visitor-created structures inspire other visitors’ building, apparently a much more robust force than the museum-provided images, challenges, and cues.

The Possibilities of Abundance
Young children find big numbers fascinating. Five and six year olds search eagerly for the biggest number in the world. They delight in tossing around words for unimaginable quantities: a gadzillion, a bjillion. They feel clever in saying infinity plus one. Vast quantities invite children to follow this interest and experience large numbers directly and pleasurably in relation to their bodies. Wrapping their arms around bundles of suspended swimming noodles, standing up against towers of blocks, and laying down in pools of balls, all these complement direct instruction in counting, sorting, dividing, measuring, and estimating.

The power of quantity can express what words alone cannot. 6 Million + Every Person Counts, an art installation of 6 million buttons at Ripon Cathedral (UK) each representing someone killed in the Holocaust, makes conceiving of the massive loss of life slightly more possible.
Photo: TwoForOneBlog
Abundance pushes and pulls us out of our usual mindsets. It may carry a solemn reminder, convey a challenging concept, bring people together, or deliver a joyful surprise. The great potential that marvelous quantities of everyday and novel materials have to attract us, hold our attention, and extend our exploration works naturally with goals and outcomes of countless exhibits and programs for audience groups across the life span, in museums around the world. Abundance can come from anywhere. It can be as easy as clearing out the local grocery store’s shelves of toothpick boxes and mini-marshmallows. It can 100 boxes or what's inside 100 boxes. It can be folding a thousand paper cranes, the buttons and what the buttons mean.


  1. Visit Caine's Arcade and see what abundance looks like in the hands of a 9 year-old boy:

  2. My favorite items for "abundant building" are three-ounce paper cups.

    Here's a cup pyramid built by one of my students.

    I also like KEVA Planks, but they are much more expensive than Dixie Cups.

    1. Peter, Thanks for sharing specific information about an attribute like size that can make a difference in working with great quantities of a material. Together your building experience along with the undulating wave by Aphidoidea illustrate the promise of paper cups for material exploration that goes in very different directions.