Have you had any good conversations with materials lately? Perhaps with clay, copper mesh, some smooth stones? Or have you watched a child gaze at and concentrate on lengths of wire, then bend, twist, twirl, coil, kink, pull, straighten, loop, dangle, hook, and reconnect the wire?
Old, new, or natural, materials make up our world: the ceramic mug, the coffee in it, the wooden table where it sits, the rug under the table, the wooden floorboards below, the Ashlar block foundation, the concrete sidewalks outside, the old elms overhead, and their shade. This is a material world.
Materials carry information about the world, how it works, and how it is likely to work. We develop a familiarity with the materials that are at hand. We come to know them through our senses; what feels sharp, soft, rigid, bumpy, slippery, or rough; how light shimmers; how this object slides; how old paint cracks. Knowing begins here, with the senses. Drawn deeper into the material through our senses, we go beyond what we knew before. Our knowledge of our world is more precise.
We may have no other end in mind than to explore what this material can do and what we can do with it. We observe, notice, and wonder. We explore the obvious aspects of a material. We compare what happens by adding a little pressure or a lot. We bend it a little or stretch it so much it cracks or tears. We learn from rather than about materials.
Materials invite spoken and unspoken questions. What will happen if…? So we manipulate the material and predict what will happen next. We wait and watch. We persist in trying to make it happen again. Later, we return to the material to find out if it has changed with time. Another question pushes forward and a once-casual dialogue with a material becomes research.
Using a material we not only learn its properties–this wire is springy–but we also experience what dealing with that property actually means, how to work with it or subdue it to accomplish our intention. We find things out for ourselves and enjoy the feeling of having learned something ourselves.
When we stay with a material, we find new possibilities. This familiarity offers new information, suggests ways to represent an idea, or hints at a fanciful purpose. Our dialogues with materials change our understanding and imaginations and reveal beauty, complexity, ideas, and promise.
How can we create more rich opportunities for adults and children to engage freely and explore many kinds of materials in museums, schools, and at home?
Beautiful Stuff. (1999). Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. Davis Publications, Inc.: Worcester, MA
In Dialogue by Jennifer Azzariti: indialoguedc.com/category/materials/