a tulip shaped stacked cardboard structure holds a single leaf

Design a structure for your favorite thing or collection.
We want to see your creations! Share on social media @hirshhorn with #HirshhornInsideOut.
Time: 30–45 minutes
Skill Level: Intermediate
Topic: Collections


Wooden sculpture with shells and sand in the middle of a square frame housed in a circle frame.

Ann Sayre Wiseman, Chambered Nautilus in Compartment, (n.d.). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981.

What do you see? Describe the shapes you see. Can you describe the structure of this artwork? Talk together and share your observations.
What objects are inside the structure? How are they arranged?
This artwork is by Ann Sayre Wiseman and is called Chambered Nautilus in Compartment. A nautilus is a sea creature that lives inside of a spiral shell. Much like the artwork, nautilus shells have multiple compartments. The nautilus lives inside the shell’s largest compartment, and builds its own shell! Wiseman built this sculpture so that shells and sand are displayed in a spiral-like arrangement inside a shadow box secured inside a metal ring. With this spiral design that mimics the nautilus itself, Wiseman makes the container as important as what’s inside.
Wiseman called this type of work a Sand Fountain, a “rotating glass box through which sand spilled and objects moved.”1 Can you imagine this sculpture moving, with the sand spilling through the different spiraled sections as it moves? Sand Fountains were Wiseman’s own invention, and she built many in the 1960s. Several of these were purchased by Joseph Hirshhorn, an art collector and the founding donor of the Hirshhorn Museum.

“Art was my path to freedom, originality, lawlessness, and uncharted creativity. Socially artists were given licence to be different, step outside the rules, travel, and enjoy libertine celebrations of life and the wonders of nature.”

– Ann Sayre Wiseman, in her own words

Artist Ann Sayre Wiseman was born in 1926, and grew up in New York City. As a child, she loved visiting the theatre and took dance classes. Wiseman studied at multiple schools in New York and also at Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, an art school in Paris. She returned to America after traveling throughout Europe, and practiced as an artist for more than thirty years. Her work included collaborating with museums, leading creative workshops, and writing books about the way she made art. Many of her artworks were inspired by nature, and showcase collections like the shells and sand featured in Chambered Nautilus in Compartment. Wiseman often embraced a do-it-yourself approach to art, and published more than a dozen books on crafting and creativity. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.
Check out this description of one of Wiseman’s books, The Best of Making Things.
View more works by Ann Sayre Wiseman in the Hirshhorn collection


Ann Sayre Wiseman created many artworks featuring containers with collections inside. In her artworks, the design of the containers is as important as the items inside. Look back at Chambered Nautilus in Compartment and notice how the inside of the container mimics the spiral shape of the Nautilus it holds in the center.
Now, get started! Dig into your collections, and create your own specially designed case for a collection or a special object!

  1. Gather some planning materials. You’ll need a piece of paper and drawing tools, like a pencil and some crayons or markers.
    A piece of paper rests on a wood table. A pencil and three markers sit beside the paper.
  2. Think about your favorite things. What do you collect? Choose an object or collection you care about. You might choose an object from the natural world, such as a rock, or a collection of favorite toys. For our model project, we used a collection of fallen autumn leaves.
    An arrangement of leaves. One leaf is green, one is yellow with green speckles, one shows yellow veins on a green transitioning to red, two leaves are red, and two are brown.
  3. Gather materials to build your structure. You’ll need:
    • Sturdy materials such as cardboard, egg cartons, packaging materials, sticks, wooden boxes
    • Scissors
    • Glue or tape
    • Decorative materials like paint, markers, torn paper, or string. For this model project, we used cardboard, sticks, markers, paint, tissue paper and ribbon.
      An arrangement of circular cardboard inserts, sticks, cut paper, markers, tape, scissors, paint, and a paintbrush.
  4. Play with the possibilities. Experiment with your materials! What can you make? Try folding or stacking materials to make different types of structures. Think about which structure makes the best display for your favorite object or collection!
    The left image features two circular cardboard inserts stacked together. The right image features four cardboard inserts nested together.
  5. Draw a structure to hold your favorite object or collection. What shapes and colors will you use? How will you display your object or collection? For this model project, we made two different sketches. On the left is a simpler structure to display a single leaf. On the right, we made a more complex design to display a larger collection of leaves.
    Note to adults: Many children, especially those under six, may do best skipping the step of sketching. Their best planning will likely be in the process of experimenting with different building possibilities and exploring in three-dimensions (see steps 3-4).
    Two side-by-side drawings featuring geometric structures. The drawings have red, green, yellow, and orange colors, like the fall leaves they are meant to hold.
  6. Construct. Use your materials to build a structure for your object or collection. Think about how you can best display your object or the items in your favorite collection! Wiseman created multiple compartments in her structure to store different nautilus shells. Once you find a structure you like, finalize it! Make it secure by cutting lines to connect pieces, or using tape/glue.
     hand holds a circular cardboard insert while scissors cut through it. two hands hold cardboard inserts side by side while they are secured with tape.
  7. Transform your structure. You might color or paint your creation, or glue strips of paper or cutout images to the surface. Use your decorative materials to enhance your design. In Chambered Nautilus in Compartment, Wiseman mimicked the spiral shape of the nautilus. For this model project, we choose to decorate our structures in yellow, green, and red to mimic fall leaf colors.
    Two hands grasp a cardboard insert. One hand holds an orange marker and draws orange lines on the cardboard.
  8. Make your final touches. Title your work! We named our single leaf structure Nature Nook and titled our collection building Features of Fall. Share on social media @hirshhorn with #HirshhornInsideOut.
    a tulip shaped stacked cardboard structure holds a single leaf
    a structure with four cardboard inserts holds several leaves. Each structure is decorated in orange, yellow, and green colors.

1Ann Sayre Wiseman, The Best of Making Things: A Hand Book of Creative Discovery (Hand Print Press, 1973), 152