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!
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.
I was asked by some older students to donate some of my work for an art auction to raise funds for reforestation in Borneo. The first thing that came to mind was my leafy triptych on loan to AncrAges association. However, it seemed so perfect in the food bank distribution room, that I couldn’t bear to take it. Instead, I decided to create new art to voice my own passion for global rainforest and biodiversity conservation efforts – and one of my favourite animals too, the orangutan. We have been donating to the Bruno Manser foundation for years and had received a print of a map drawn by the Penan tribespeople, as a thank you gift. I used that as a starting point for one and an old wood-framed mirror for the other. The painting on the mirror allows the viewer to see their own eyes in the eyes of the orangutan.
I had such fun coordinating the set design for the Swiss première of “Madagascar JR” at the Nations campus of the International School of Geneva. I loved witnessing my students’ flamboyant 3D trees and flowers burst into bloom and fill the corridors, but I must admit that I also relished every minute of quiet, solo overtime spent on painting the zoo and jungle backdrops! These panels are now a permanent fixture in the Nations corridors as a colourful reminder of the whole joyful process from start to showtime!
I was asked to take charge of the decoration for the wonderful Gala Bohème fundraiser organised by AncrAges and Chateau Vert at the Martin Luther King centre in Annemasse on the 22nd April. Such an unforgettable evening of colour, music, laughter and solidarity. Thanks especially to the fabulous Flocking Murmuration for playing for free! Also so special to have the talented and lovely Nicolas Maurel making this incredible mural live at the event!
For Dan, inspired by the rich, joyful, passion-filled, sometimes hectic life we share; our efforts to be mindful amidst it all and one of my favorite poems – Desiderata by Max Ehrmann https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderata
This summer, the kids and I got hooked on making dreamcatchers, first of all to catch the bad dreams my daughter had been having and then just because it was so much fun! We collected the feathers from our birds (5 hens, 4 ducks and 2 geese) that were floating around our garden and wove odds and ends of wool, ribbons and threads through supple twigs pruned from our hazelnut, lilac and grapevines. I have a collection of single well-loved earrings that I had kept over the years “just in case” and lots of pretty beads of all shapes and sizes to give the webs extra positive energy too. We put together a little kit so that we could even make them on long car journeys and on camp sites! By the end of the summer we had made at least 20! We have them dotted around the house and we gave lots away, but these as-yet-homeless or unfinished ones are still hanging in my bedroom…