Paper: 2D to 3D

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One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about is the sort of principles one should adopt in a MakerSpace.  And one of those critical principles is this one:

Principle #2: 2D makes 3D

What does that mean? It means that a student or an adult should take a 2-dimensional material, such as paper or fabric or plywood or sheet metal, and turn it into a 3-dimensional object. (I watched a video of Adam Savage making a box using a metal brake recently, and it was inspiring to see a box made so easily. [see about 6:33 and following]).

It’s better if that object has a fold or a bend or a twist in in, or has some sort of functional purpose — but just folding or bending or shaping a piece of paper in a deliberate or conscious way can turn a flat thing into a product. Sometimes it’s a box, sometimes it’s a house-shape, sometimes it’s a bag, sometimes it’s a yarn-winder. Sometimes it’s a question of folding or stacking pieces, sometimes it’s bending them.

What does that look like?

How do we know when a student’s efforts at working Principle #2 have succeeded? How do we know when our own efforts have succeeded?

How do we succeed if we don’t have a metal brake in the workshop (or a hundred bucks of leather for each and every student to make their own Chewbacca bandolier??).

It’s worth remembering the cheapness and versatility of that key material:


Paper is enormously versatile.  I think I got a sense of that with the Paper Roller Coasters people, and the work of Rob Ives.  You can do amazing things with paper.  But pop-up cards have tremendous versatility as a way of teaching the basics of 2D to 3D thinking. In these few cards, you can see one that turns into an easel, several that turn into steps, and several that turn into folded panels. There’s even a Japanese envelope-letter: write on one side of the paper, and then fold it, and it becomes its own envelope.

What are the benefits of working with paper first, before working with metal or leather or cloth? First it’s a lot cheaper.  A sheet of paper starts at around a penny a square foot (though it can get more expensive), while fabric starts at around a penny a square inch.  Paper is the place to teach conservation of materials, 2d to 3d, and the principles of cutting and measuring carefully. This is where the work begins. This — and drawing.

If you have to equip a MakerSpace, and you only have a $100 budget for the year, start with a lot of paper in a lot of weights, and invest in cutting and folding tools like Xacto knives, rulers, and bone folders.  You can download all the origami and pop-up card designs you could possibly want from the Internet.  Measure, cut, fold — make templates ,and cutting and folding diagrams, and set up production lines.  Teach the industrial revolution, Hallmark card-style, and reinvigorate letter-writing culture at the same time.

(While you’re at it, teach students to make the Platonic and Archimedean solids — geometry learning should go along with Maker learning. That’s practically standard).

Remember: No matter what you build, it’ll be a beginning. And everything you teach about folding, cutting, bending and scoring will ultimately be useful when you do get around to having a metal brake.

The cards so far

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The cards so far

Originally uploaded by anselm23

As I’ve posted here, I’m working on improving my drawing skills by making ‘copies’ of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. It’s not a strict copying, in that I’m actually reducing the card’s area by 50% or so. And I’m not slavishly reproducing every card.

Yet a curious thing happens when I show them to folks. The non-artists greet the effort with… not contempt, exactly, but a degree of boredom, puzzlement, and — to be frank about it, mild distaste. “You should be creating your own deck,” they say. “Designing your own cards will teach you so much about the process of learning the cards.”

The artists, on the other hand, see the effort with excitement and interest. “Of COURSE this is benefitting you,” they say. “You’re learning to match hand and eye, and imprinting the skills of the artist in question into your own work, and developing a sense of how line and shadow work together. You’re taking in the capabilities of the artist. You’re learning how to manage the skills of reproducing specific images, whether from photographs or live images.”

The disconnect between the professionals and the observers can’t be any wider, and it draws me into an awareness of the challenges we face as teachers.

Brushes Painting: first Church
When you look at this other recent painting (done in Brushes, a digital app for fingerpainting on an iPad or iPhone or similar device), it becomes clear that my skills as an observer have improved from doing the cards. The cards serve as a kind of triple-curriculum: how to draw certain kinds of shapes, and how to improve one’s observational skills, and the symbolic information encoded by generations of occultists in the cards. Color, line, shadow, symbol, visuals like cities and horses and feathers and pomegranates, all have deep meaning in these cards, readable to those who study them.

It’s hard to beat that kind of centuries-long curriculum development, and it’s something that we’ve either ignored, or only just begun to explore in American teaching. How could we make color, line and symbol mean so much, and make our classrooms and our learning projects have that kind of deep relevance — one that teaches drawing, meaning, symbolism, history, mathematics, and other skills on so many different levels?

Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and other members of the 20th century pantheon of American authors, made a point of writing out the words of James Joyce or Ernest Hemingway by hand, or typing them on their typewriters. They wanted to know the sense of their chosen exemplars in their hands, in the click of the keys. Once they’d copied a few stories, they absorbed some of the lessons of those writers they admired — and were able to write their own masterpieces.

There’s an idea here of how to make a lot of critical data available to a student or students, and provide them with a way to explore certain concepts or structures on a daily basis. I’m not sure I can do it myself. I’m not sure it’s the work of one person, either, or even one whole generation. But it could be done — the evidence is here that it’s been done at least once already.