What a joy it has been to serve these wonderful people of all ages, all walks of life in the “No Comment” Closlieu. For the majority of them it was their first time trying Painting-Play, but they took to it like ducks to water. Since it’s a brand new and quite alien concept in Singapore, I’ve been hosting “discovery” sessions. I know Arno might not approve of a Closlieu taking bookings for less than an entire year(!), but I hope he would understand that in the context of Singapore this really is a necessity. Lots of these one-time sessions are leading to longer-term bookings of 5-7 weeks… Baby steps headed in the right direction!
Against all Covid-19-related odds, “No Comment” Painting-Play studio opened on 14th July 2020 – the first and only Closlieu in Singapore!
I’m allowed to welcome 5 people at a time and I leave an hour between each group to deep clean and disinfect (and archive the paintings). It’s been such a blast already, more than 70 painting-players and almost 400 paintings later! Phew!
Here are a few glimpses of the journey so far…
I’ve just seen that it was Arno’s 96th birthday on Tuesday. In this photo that his son André took, there was a row of colourful candles inspired by one of his wonderful inventions: the table-palette. Such a perfect way to celebrate the long and vibrant life of this pioneering man! Because Arno has devoted more than 70 of his 96 years to the development of “le jeu de peindre”, which requires a “closlieu” room with its “table-palette” nucleus of 18 delectable colours in order for “la formulation” – the universal visual “mother-tongue” – to arise in the participants. Much like the flames on his candles, the paint colours shine a light on this neglected and endangered language. When you bring people of all ages around the table-palette, just as when you bring families and friends around a regular table to share a meal together, it strengthens a bond of trust in humanity, solidarity, of shared experience, creating memories and a brighter, more hopeful future.
Thank you once again, Arno, for bringing Painting Play into our lives! Here’s to many more happy birthdays ahead!
I’ve just watched and re-watched a powerful video of the former dean of Stanford University, writer and speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims (who by the way is bi-racial African-American and white British, living in the US) being interviewed by Sir Ken Robinson’s daughter Kate (who by the way is white British-French and living in the UK).
Until the 25th May 2020, when George Floyd’s brutal and senseless murder by a US policeman rocked the world, we had spent several months mainly concerned with managing Covid-19 pandemic-related stresses, precarity and uncertainty. Robinson and Lythcott-Haims talk about urgent lessons in anti-racist parenting and educating today in this new George Floyd era. It has struck me, as it did Kate, that we may now be trying to juggle a double dose of anxiety and confusion. It’s important to face this head on as we continue trying to raise happy, courageous, confident, principled children.
Kate first asks Julie: How can I be a parent who does not simply expect that by being non-racist I will raise a non-racist child, but rather as my child’s biggest role model, sincerely embody the change I wish to see in the world, starting at home?
Julie preceeds her reply with the horrifyingly gentle reminder: “Let us not presume everybody listening is white”. Boom! I was caught out.
She goes on to remind us that black parents in the US simply don’t have the luxury of deciding whether to talk about racism with their young children. It’s literally a matter of survival. As a child of 3 or 4 years old, she learned about racism “from the looks of strangers on the street”. Parents of children of colour have a more challenging, yet all the more important task to ensure that their children feel:
You are unconditionally loved.
You are precious.
You are worthy of kindness and love and dignity.
At the same time, parents of children of colour have to prepare their babies for a world where some people will presume they are criminals, violent, lazy or uncivilised, just because of their skin colour or features.
Young children notice sameness and difference and they notice their parents’ behaviour. So rather than rushing an embarrassingly direct toddler out of the supermarket when he or she loudly observes racial difference, we can diffuse a potentially awkward situation with gentle kindness and model some great parenting for onlookers, whilst exploiting the opportunity to teach our child about the wonder and joy of diversity.
Julie: “There is nothing wrong with difference. In fact our remarkable differences as a human species are beautiful and real and valid. Our task is to ensure that our children do not attach value labels, value judgements to those differences.”
This pulled me straight back with whiplash to my “closlieu” alternative art studio dream, where we paint-play together in our diversity and solidarity, where no value judgements are made and we celebrate each individual’s uniqueness.
Kate wonders: “Where does racism come from?”
Julie: “It comes from attitudes, beliefs, ignorance, lack of exposure to people who are different or very biased exposure to people who are different. As parents, we need to examine our own assumptions and presumptions, actions, behaviours, reactions. Our kids are listening to every word we say and they are watching everything we do. So we as parents have to ask ourselves, “Do I love black people?” “Do I see black people as being equally human to me?”
She continues: “Coming to you from America, where we dehumanise black folk, because we do not see black folk as equally human. They enslaved us because they didn’t think we were human – and I know I’m speaking to my former colonialist empire here (Kate is British). They ripped us from the arms of our parents and children on the auction block as we cried and our cries were met with no mercy, because they did not see our family bonds as rising to the level of their family bonds.”
As a white person, some of the questions I need to confront are the following: Do I see different coloured people as equally human? Or do I see stereotypes? Do I have friends of different races? Do I actively seek out places, organisations, opportunities to connect with people who are different from me? If the answer is no, then there is a message here which is not entirely anti-racist, which I am tacitly and implicitly transmitting to my children.
Reading edifying books, watching critical documentaries, having those fundamental conversations, all this is great, but I must also be brave enough to ask, “why have I chosen to live a life where I am usually surrounded by white people?” I need to continue to be curious about places where I might have blind spots and actively connect with people of all colours, locals, migrant workers, refugees, whatever the dynamic is where I live.
These are just a few of the salient and sobering points Julie Lythcott-Haims brought up in the interview. I urge you to listen for yourselves here:
Stay safe, stay strong. #blacklivesmatter
André Stern talks and writes about the Ecology Of Childhood and how, if we are to protect the future of humanity, we need to to start thinking about protecting and nurturing childhood. The limitless potential of a natural, intuitive child is literally our only hope – and they are an endangered species! The human race will not survive without allowing children to flourish.
The visual language that occurs in the closlieu – it’s mother tongue, “the formulation“, is an endangered language too. When I read George Monbiot’s excellent article and saw the painting by his daughter in The Guardian this morning, I was thrilled by his insightful perspective and struck dumbfounded by the similarity it bore to some of the infinitely expansive and expressive paintings that have emanated from other children (aged 3 to 103) when they are allowed to create without judgement, without competition, without comparison to others.
When life and learning is about the process instead of output and the bottom line, it becomes about attitudes. When we stop competing and comparing ourselves to others, we remember we actually are all in this together and the ones who survive our crisis will be the ones who connect and who choose love and wonder instead of fear.
No Comment Singapore – alternative painting studio
The story of Italy’s now world famous Reggio Emilia city-run nurseries and primary schools is fascinating and unique, but their award-winning holistic approach to early years education is inspiring more and more schools throughout the world to notice, respect and nurture the multitude (“and a hundred, hundred, hundred more”) ways a child interacts with and makes sense of the world.
Loris Malaguzzi, founder and first director of the Reggio Emilia municipal early years program from it’s conception in 1945 to his death in 1994, wrote the following poem as a powerful manifesto of the values embodied by the Reggio Emilia approach. I love its defiant defence of children’s plethora of ways of knowing and understanding and the unflattering light it shines on the obtuse dualism of grown up wisdom: work versus play; reality versus fantasy; science versus imagination; sky versus earth and reason versus dreams… Why must one preclude the other? Why should they even be considered separate phenomena?? The text in the photo is miniscule, so I’ve written it out fully below for you to enjoy.
No Way. The Hundred Is There. The child is made of one hundred. The child has a hundred languages a hundred hands a hundred thoughts a hundred ways of thinking of playing, of speaking. A hundred, always a hundred ways of listening of marveling, of loving a hundred joys for singing and understanding a hundred worlds to discover a hundred worlds to invent a hundred worlds to dream. The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred, hundred, hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine. The school and the culture separate the head from the body. They tell the child: to think without hands to do without head to listen and not to speak to understand without joy to love and to marvel only at Easter and Christmas. They tell the child: to discover the world already there and of the hundred they steal ninety-nine. They tell the child: that work and play reality and fantasy science and imagination sky and earth reason and dream are things that do not belong together. And thus they tell the child that the hundred is not there. The child says: No way. The hundred is there. - Loris Malaguzzi (Original Italian version translated by Lella Gandini) Taken from pages 2 and 3 in Edwards C., Gandini L. and Forman G. (2012) The Hundred Languages of Children - The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation , published by Praeger
I seem to be drawn to poems at the moment… My daughter has a favourite book of poetry that she’s had for years, which made the final cut when we whittled down books to bring with us from France to Singapore last August. The other day, she and I were taking a break from her diligent e-learning to chat and lounge in her bedroom, when she jumped up, and exclaimed, “Mummy you really have to read this poem. It’s amazing and perfect for you!” She grabbed the book, flipped through the pages expertly and showed it to me. She was spot on and I can’t believe that it’s been in this book all along, waiting to be shared with you all! I love how the wonderful, anarchic John Hegley tackles, in a light-hearted but also poignant way how adults sometimes tear down children by stating the obvious (obviously the most important thing to an adult), “you’ve gone over the lines, that’s what you’ve done”. They sometimes ask sarcastic, superior, rhetorical questions “What do you think they’re there for, ay? Some kind of statement is it? Going to be a rebel are we?” in the guise of educating or even entertaining other adults. Finally they sometimes lie, (which is usually obvious to a child), “they’re all very good”, damning with blanket, thoughtless praise. That’s why I so passionately believe in creating at least one small, nearby space in the world (a closlieu) for everyone (from small children to grown-up children) to be able to paint without any judgement at all. What freedom to grow and such a way to liberate all of our creative spirits! Enjoy the poem!
Stuck in lockdown, unable to launch my dream Painting-Play space in Singapore as planned, I took a breath and some time out to playfully translate an extract from Arno Stern’s “Une Tracée De Plaisir”:
“Painting can be an art, but it can also be playful.
And play nullifies
The notion of talent; the obsession with success; the dependence on an audience.
As play, a trace is left for the pleasure of it, for its own power and purity.
The trace is enough in itself.
Leaving a trace is a fundamental and essential act; a tangible creation.
The act of leaving a trace resonates deeply within the person.
No other activity is as spontaneous.
No other activity eludes teaching to this degree.
No other activity procures such immediate pleasure.”
(Le Closlieu – le Jeu de Peindre et la Formulation, 2013, p.139)
I recently discovered this poetic story, published in 1961 by the insightful early childhood expert and author, Dr Helen Buckley (1918-2001). See the original poem below, written 30 years before the video was made. It still strikes a painful chord with much traditional school-based art teaching, even today. As loving, well-meaning parents and teachers, we must be so careful not to overly prune the fragile creative buds of the children in our care.
THE LITTLE BOY, by Helen E. Buckley
Once a little boy went to school.
He was quite a little boy and it was quite a big school, but when the little boy found that his room was very near the outside door, he was happy and the school did not seem quite so big any more.
One day, when the little boy had been in school a while, his teacher said: “Today we are going to make a picture.”
“Good!” thought the little boy. He liked to make pictures. He could make all kinds. Lions and tigers, chickens and cows, trains and boats, and he took out his box of crayons and he began to draw.
But the teacher said: “Wait! It is not time to begin!”
“Now, we are going to make flowers.”
“Good!” thought the little boy, he liked to make flowers, and he began to make beautiful ones, but the teacher said “Wait! I’ll show you how.”
And it was red with a green stem.
“There,” said the teacher, “Now you may begin.”
The little boy looked at the teacher’s flower. Then he looked at his own flower.
He liked his flower better than the teacher’s. But he didn’t say this. He just turned his paper over and found his red crayon and his green crayon.
He made a flower like the teacher’s.
It was red with a green stem.
On another day, the teacher said: “Today we are going to make something with clay.”
“Good!” thought the little boy. He liked clay. He could make all kinds of things with clay. Snakes and snowmen, elephants and mice, cars, and trucks, and he began to pull and pinch his ball of clay.
But the teacher said: “Wait!” It is not time to begin!” and she waited until everyone looked ready.
“Now,” said the teacher, “We are going to make a dish.”
He liked to make dishes. And he began to make some that were all shapes and sizes.
But the teacher said, “Wait! And I will show you how.” And she showed everyone how to make one deep dish.
“There,” said the teacher. “Now you may begin.”
The little boy looked at the teacher’s dish, then he looked at his own. He liked his dish better than the teacher’s. But he did not say this. He just rolled his clay into a big ball again and made a dish like the teacher’s. It was a deep dish.
And pretty soon the little boy learned to wait, and to watch and to make things just like the teachers. And pretty soon he didn’t make things of his own anymore.
Then it happened that the little boy and his family moved to another house, in another city, and the boy had to go to another school.
This school was even bigger than the one before and there was no door from the outside near his room. He had to walk up some big steps and walk down a long hall to get to his room.
And the very first day he was there the teacher said: “Today we are going to make a picture.”
“Good!” Thought the little boy.
And he waited for the teacher to tell him what to do.
But the teacher didn’t say anything. She just walked around the room.
When she came to the little boy she said, “Don’t you want to make a picture?”
“Yes,” said the little boy.
“What are we going to make?”
“I don’t know until you make it,” said the teacher.
“How shall I make it?” asked the little boy.
“Why, any way you like,” said the teacher.
“Any color?” asked the little boy.
“Any color,” said the teacher. “Well yes, if everyone made the same picture, and used the same colors, how would I know who made what and which was which?”
“I don’t know,” said the little boy.
And he began to make a red flower with a green stem.
Imagine a place, sparkling with the colour, where you can paint to your heart’s content, without any fear of judgement…
Honed by 95 year old Paris-based artist, pedagogue, philosopher, writer and scientist Arno Stern over a period of more than 70 years and adopted by practitioners around the world, this special 10 day training session was attended by more than 30 educators, artists, psychologists, therapists and other interested people from all over France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland… to the Canary Islands, Chile, the USA, Colombia and… Singapore;-)
Painting-play provides an opportunity for self-expression in a safe and stimulating space, known as the Closlieu (Kloh-lyeuh). It provides an opportunity for play and flow. It provides a framework within which the player has agency and is empowered in the natural evolution of their skills and potential.
There are no losers in The Painting Game. Each player is the hero in their own individual and infinite painted “game” – acted out in the presence of others, in solidarity, not competition.
As with any game, there are rules – the most important being NO JUDGEMENT. (Players must not comment on or judge their own painting or that of anyone else in the room.)
Over years of bearing witness to the paintings created in his Closlieu in Paris, France, Arno Stern began to notice a commonality; a shared visual language in the work of the young and uninhibited painters. His curiosity drove him to study the drawings and paintings of un-schooled (therefore naturally expressive) young and older people in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, New Guinea, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Niger. The results were unequivocal: there exists an underlying visual “formulation” shared by all humans, which underpins all of our spontaneous, uninhibited mark-making. The “formulation” consists of 70 distinct figures and spaces, which he showed in literally hundreds of examples. Quite an astounding discovery and a life-changing concept for us all! I was impressed and inspired by Arno Stern’s dynamism and vitality, which seemed in direct correlation to his passion for his work.
We were also treated to a conference by Arno’s son, André Stern, who was famously “unschooled” and is now a best-selling author and musician among other talents and projects. He is well known for his books, TEDx talks and conferences on the importance of enthusiasm and play.