Sensory Alphabet


 One of Nina's line collection photos (at the Aldrich)

Another chapter in the Creativity Sagas. Susan, Cindy (both colleagues from our nearly childhoods) and I have been working with the educators at the Aldrich Contemporary Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, giving a 3-day crash course in using the Sensory Alphabet (an equivalent of letters and numbers for everything except letters and numbers) and developing programs that help kids (and their parents) identify individually powerful and authentic creativity. This was a kind of step 2 interaction after the successful program Susan ran at the museum last summer for 5 year olds. Remember this post?

The sensory alphabet (which might sound at first blush like design terms or an art vocabulary) is line, color, shape, space, rhythm, movement, texture, light, sound. And yes, the arts (visual, performing and edges and overlaps thereof) are where this "alphabet" can be used easily with children, but the idea is broader and deeper than that. ie: Creative people in many disciplines and fields of study and invention are most likely working from their strenghts corresponding to their perceptial strengths. Show me a good mathematician,  I will probably see a person strongly interested in rhythm, space and line.

All this is the subject of our book-in-progress, but the work this week has been to help this staff apply some of the key concepts we've all been interested in to their program development. The most important and critical reason we are interested in putting this work out in new forms and with new audiences is that since our work in the '70s and 80s, the world of primary (and secondary) education has gotten smaller, tighter, less interested or responsive to individual talents and interests and more test driven than ever. The results -- here EVEN  in this quite affluent area of the U.S.: parents hungry to find programs that actually help their kids find successful and creative paths into the future, something more than just skill aquisition, something that touches and awakes a fire for learning, achieving, applying information, using deep wisdom.

Here's the an example of the COLLECTION exercise we started with. Try it! (I've got eight others, if it's of interest, email me and I will send you the complete list of 9.) 

Collecting Ideas with the Sensory Alphabet

The next 2.5 – 3 hours will take us through the Sensory Alphabet with a series of collection techniques – these are just a few of the ways the SA can be used to generate personal content  -- as well as to explore a theme, a period of art history or a work of art.

We will spend about 15 minutes with each of the 9 alphabet concepts: Line, Shape, Color, Movement, Rhythm, Space, Texture, Light, Sound. As you work with these Sensory Alphabet “screens,” you might also want to consider these “modifiers”:

General Instructions:
During the next 2.5-3 hours,  (that's for the entire 9 categories) use as  many different spaces and materials and media available as possible. If you usually sketch to collect ideas, spend at least part of each session doing something completely different: writing, moving, making sounds, taking photos, tearing paper, etc. Use both the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Work quickly without judgment. This is art-making; this is not product. This is not good or bad. This is collecting, stretching, playing, finding new and old ways to interact with the environment around you. Play as a child would play, but record as you go, finding different ways to record what you notice, engage with and find interesting.

Don’t pay attention to what anyone else is doing. You can’t be better or worse, by definition.

Pick and choose between the following assignments for each sensory alphabet element as you wish. You may do several of the assignments or  only one in the time allotted. BUT the emphasis is on fluency to some degree. It is more appropriate in these exercises to work with flow from one idea to the next, collecting as much information and as many ideas as you can during the assignments.


  • Collect 15 different physical lines.
  • Draw at least 20 different lines on LARGE pieces of paper.
  • Walk the patterns of  at least 5 lines you see in the natural world or in art works around you.
  • Write the story of a line you like.
  • Pick a natural object that appeals to you and find all the lines in the object. Sketch them over and over.
  • Translate some of the lines you have found into a collage using string, yarn, sticks, thread, wire or other linear materials.
  • Draw lines with a variety of different media. Go for diversity in scale, speed, color, fluidity or lack of, weight, thickness, etc.
  • Fill a sack with lines.
  • Make contour drawings of something you see. Draw very slowly following the lines in the object without looking at the paper. Use the pen as though you were following the lines by tracing them with your finger.
  • Fill different sizes of paper with as many lines as you can. Or with one very long line.
  • Imagine a new written script or language and write it out.