Introduction: Plant Prisms & Cardboard Kaleidoscope

About: the Wonderful Idea Company is a design studio for the playful exploration of ideas in art, science and technology

"Mirrors I find very confusing to this day and I think it takes a lot of getting used to. You start when you're little getting used to mirrors, its a life-long process and that's why its so surprising. It's so different from what you're expecting. Any mirror is a magical sort of thing"

-Frank Oppenheimer

In this mini-exhibit, mirrors help to create beautiful and surprising kaleidoscopic designs using flowers, leaves, and other plant-based materials. This project, developed by guest artist Sarah Chung, uses a couple unique tools and materials to help you explore biological specimens you can find in your backyard or on walks around the neighborhood. These tools provide fun entry points to investigate math, science, art and the natural world around us.

The first part of this project takes inspiration from the Exploratorium exhibit "corner reflector" which uses two hinged mirrors to create a simple kaleidoscope that shows multiple images of an object. For the second part we borrowed some ideas from low-threshold DIY kaleidoscope projects on the web and got inspired by the high ceiling installations of artist Andy Goldsworthy.

This investigation was created in collaboration with Lodestar Community Charter School as part of a grant to develop tools that can be used in schools, maker-spaces, libraries and small museums. The current covid-19 situation has forced us to shift focus a bit and think about tools for investigating art, science and technology at home. Hopefully these little handheld tools can be an interesting way for people to explore art and science as they stay close to home.


Folding Quilting Mirror -

Natural Materials from your yard or a walk around the block

Phone/Tablet with a camera

Toilet Paper Tube or other recycled cylinder (like a pringles can)

Mirrored Cardstock - or

Scissors or Utility Knife

Masking Tape

Step 1: Get a Folding Mirror

Using a folding quilt mirror is a fun and interesting way of studying natural objects. You can get one for about $10 on amazon and the tool gives a solid starting point for natural kaleidoscope investigations.

By positioning the natural materials between the two folding mirrors, you can change the perspective of the plants and multiply them a number of times depending on the angles. The little protractor base allows you to easily set the mirrors to a specific set of degrees.

While it's possible to use any two reflective surfaces to explore this phenomenon, we think the quilt mirror is the most convenient option because it already has a hinge and is made of acrylic so it's safe to use for young kids.

Step 2: Gather Natural Materials

The next step is to go out into your backyard or take a walk around the neighborhood to look for cool flowers, leaves and other plan parts that you can use to make compelling images.

Try to find objects that are symmetrical (or not), brightly colored and different shapes and sizes. The wider the variety of materials you can collect, the more interesting your creations will be.

Step 3: Experiment With the Angled Mirrors

Once you have your collection of natural materials you can try out different ways of making images. Notice how the angle of the mirrors affects how many reflections that you can see. Try to put another mirror below the angled mirror or arrange multiple mirrors to create an infinite loop of natural objects.

There are a lot of interesting ways to play with natural patterns and shapes. Try stacking the flowers and leaves on top of each other or arrange parts to intersect in complex ways.

Step 4: Build Your Own Kaleidoscope

To make some more complex and psychedelic images, you can make your own scrappy kaleidoscope out of common household materials.

Grab a used toilet paper roll (aka a derder) and the sheet of mirrored acrylic.

Place the toilet paper tube on the mirrored sheet and mark the length of the tube. Cut the sheet to be a strip the same size as the derder.

Put the toilet paper tube on the sheet and make a mark about as big as the width of the tube. Cut three pieces that are roughly the width of the tube. A little bit bigger is better as you can always trim them later.

Line up the three pieces side by side.Tape the pieces together and add another piece of tape on the last piece so that it overlaps the side of the rectangle. Fold the pieces together so that they make a pyramid shape and press the tape together.

Fit the mirrored triangle into the derder. If it's too big you can trim off some of the pieces and then retape and if its too small add some balled up paper or tape inside the tube so that it fits snugly.

If you want to get fancy you can add a little end piece made out of cardboard with a triangle shaped hole so that the mirror stays in place.

Look through the end of kaleidoscope and admire the amazing geometric designs.

Step 5: Take Some Kaleidoscopic Photos and Videos

Position your lens from the camera on your tablet or phone right in the center of the kaliedoscope. For ease of use you can tape the derder kaleidoscope onto the tablet using masking or painters tape.

Once you have the materials arranged the way that you like, you can take photos of the pattern using the camera on your smart phone or tablet. Here are a few tips for taking good photos with the plant prism:

Lighting-the quilt mirror will create shadows depending on how it is positioned with the source of natural light or artificial light.

Experiment with indirect natural light for clearest picture and reflection in the mirror.

Spend some time adjusting the position of your camera to avoid getting the reflection of the camera or your body in the picture. Holding the camera above and slightly angled down worked best for us.

Step 6: Learn and Share

For another fun way to learn more, you can consult a field guide to find out fascinating facts about the plants that you are using to make art. We used Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi to find out that we photographed a plant called Green Milkweed or Green Antelope Horns. It was cool to learn that the seed pods grow a silky fluffy material that used to be turned into candle wicks and that goldfinches use to line their nests.

Another resource that you can use to to figure out what type of plant you are photographing is the Inaturalist app developed by Cal Academy of Science and Natural Geographic. This app uses a community of passionate enthusiasts to crowdsource the identification of all types of natural objects.

And we would love it if you shared your photos on social media with the hashtag #plantprism or #cardboardkaleidoscope. Add the location and info about the materials so that we can create a growing library of beautiful art/science creations from nature explorers.

---Prototyping time and R&D with Lodestar Charter School for the Plant Prism and Cardboard Kaleidoscope was made possible through the generous support of Cognizant “Making the Future” grant.

Backyard Contest

Participated in the
Backyard Contest