Arno Stern is the Servant of Closlieu. This Creative Education Practitioner, a formula he tolerates, has been welcoming children of all ages for over fifty years. Since being asked, after the Second World War, to occupy a group of children. Without means, he gave them some precarious tools and thus began the discovery of Formulation. Why discovery and not invention? Because the reading of his book The Painting Game (Actes Sud, 2011) deeply immersed me in dark and deep recesses of my memory.

I, too, saw myself at age 7-8 at my grandparents’ house. There was my grandmother, she stirred the embers under the table. I still feel the smell of powder and fire during walks in the forest. I saw my cushions, small, when we had begun to draw a picture of hunting modestly hanging on the wall. I obviously did not like my drawing at all… I wonder if this is my first memory?

During Arno Stern’s incredible travels to remote places he was able to experience his theory of organic memory. How else would children of all ages, cultures and places realize, tirelessly and without relaxation the same traces? How else would any child understand the Table-Palette mechanism, immediately and almost naturally? There is the magic of the common flame, of the whole universe that connects humanity and our history. Stern’s classification methodology, vocabulary and grammar have almost given birth to a science:

  • First there are the primary figures, which every child realizes with a pencil, a brush, or a stick in the hands;
  • then the notion of space comes into play, of limits, with the image-objects and their plots;
  • staged through transparencies, accents, to reveal the essential figures.

The look of this servant appears behind his text. And if everything was written and nothing could surprise him now? For so many years, he has the depth of the old who is young. Old, because he has observed, studied, discovered, what is hidden inside the very newcomers. Young, because he is always amazed, I think, by the creative potential that is in us. He knows that he is changing lives, and his reward can not be greater. He is not a teacher, especially not. “I was lucky not to have studied,” he says proudly, defiantly. Because the teaching that he draws, he does from others, from his experience, that is why he tolerates his profession before the administration: Practitioner of Creative Education. Stern’s observation is curious: the child remakes what he has learned at school; the adult, an abstract painting. They meet at the bottom. Do not they do what is expected of them, or do they believe they are expected of them? What are they looking for? They do not seek to do good (inconceivable), or to progress (to which way?). They are on the lookout for the approval of the other. From the teacher’s judgment, from the admiration of peers. That’s the effect they’re watching, in Stern’s words. While he does not seek, he finds. Because around him, everyone finds in himself his memories. It is clear that this teaching is liberating and at the same time instructive.

Or should I say disruptive. In our society, children are classified from an early age. By year of birth, but also by level. As if it was harmful to rub the others “who are not like oneself”. Since we are in the school system, we are constantly comparing ourselves. There are the good students and the dunces, those of Sciences and those of Letters, the children of workmen and those of well-off backgrounds. The medium … does this restrictive word already encircle the person? These rankings continue into adulthood because at the exit of the long and often tortuous path of adolescence is the world of work. This is where one learns to sell, in front of an employer, or a jury, or his manager. We are always in an environment, computing, art, research. Always at home. So, I imagine that crossing the threshold of Closlieu, we are not alone, but with his experience, his past. We arrive with his luggage, these memory images. See you at school, you have to come up with an idea, of course. What if he asked me a question and I did not know how to answer? The other students would judge me, I would see their eyes, right there, behind my neck, and as in my childhood, heat would invade my face. The first shock of the encounter, the first test appears before the Table-palette; what to do ? how to “react” This child will be the adult in a job interview situation. This is only the first in a series of shocks.

I would like to rub shoulders with these children, adults, provided they have not forgotten what they found in themselves. Disadvantages to this teaching? This can be the same as what is attributed to free education: how will the child fit into society? It will inevitably have gaps if its course does not resemble that of the others. Will he accept the rules of a society he ignores? Will he react savagely to the constraints? Stern says it. We must let the child express himself, play, experiment. But when he wants to go up and down the ladder, wreak havoc, and lead the group, it is necessary to show him the limits. For freedom is always exercised in a framework, and respect is the key word. Respect for others, and for the process. Freedom is not anarchy. In the Closlieu there are rules. But Stern does not do a lecture before a session. He observes and sees if the rules were naturally understood. Instead of correcting the work done: “do not you think that you should try another color range, modify this line, integrate this element? He intervenes on the how. Because, naturally, the child will want to take a brush as if it were a pen, and press the sheet. It’s restrictive for his freedom of movement. We must first wet the brush and then dip in the paint, without draining, without squirting. This will become automatisms, but which must be explained when discovering the Game.

For some time he has been obliged to tell the children not to spoil, to dig, to slash their leaves. I do not agree on this point. It happens to me, when I make a plastic realization. When my painting is too smooth, I create reliefs. When she is immaculate, I let drops. I include matter. I need it, and this is probably in my organic memory. Do I need to break the rules? Also, when he excludes from work the flows, the accidental, involuntary traces, I do not agree with him. We can let ourselves be surprised and realized in an involuntary, mechanical way, in the manner of surrealist automatic drawings. That’s a lot of good. For sometimes there is a need to release his gesture, to no longer control it, to let go and let go through the meanders buried in oneself, unknown, to see them emerge.

Other remarks could be: but after the passage to Closlieu, the child will not have learned to draw! Ah, the sacrosanct drawing, the analyzes of the child’s drawings, the naive art, the art brut, etc. etc. How to see in my child’s drawing if he will be a genius? The parents projecting their desires to the offspring is not what is missing. Indeed, after the Closlieu the child will not be able to accurately and exactly realize an eye, a hand, a path or a house. His characters will have too big hands, heads too small, trees will be like mushrooms, space too small. Always too much, still not enough. Indeed. But, is it the goal of Closlieu? To make children human photographic machines? I do not think so.

I have been drawing for a very long time. Not regularly, rather in fits and starts. I like to let myself go to represent human expressions, I prefer them to objects and even more to landscapes. I take a pencil and I do. I do not remember learning. Sometimes I draw live models. But it’s true that my head is often too big, my legs too short, and so on. An Italian teacher once told me it was a shame, because my drawings were “pretty”. I needed training. I agreed. Training, not lessons, or courses to train! I have a colleague who gives drawing lessons to children. We often have these discussions, when he explains to me that the space between the eyes is always equivalent to … I forgot. That the body is made with the following proportions … I do not hold back, because it requires an effort. I prefer to draw what I see, and make me surprise, surpass myself.

Recently I represented a character with pretty masculine features. The teacher asked me, “Why did you make her neck narrower than her face? “. His neck was actually the same width, but I drew what I knew, not what I saw! Unlearning is a challenge. And I like that, I like to express on a sheet what I feel. More than doing a perfect design, clean, impeccable. Basically, who is interested in perfection? Nevertheless, this year I’m a plastic expression class, and I like the teacher’s teaching. She gives me some rules to “unblock me”. She showed me how to make a hand, I always galley. How are the eyes drawn? I do not learn it by heart, but I remember his approach, his gestures, his taking back, his ease and his desire to transmit. It will help me, I hope, to express more easily what I want to say. But for all that, I like to be surprised by accidents, spontaneity is also that. In this point, I do not join Stern.

Another element also interested me in his book. When he talks about Closlieu, conditions that make this place a unique place, because there is only there that the Formulation can appear. When he almost mathematically repays his grammar. When he talks about his impact on the participants. There is a great esteem for what he does, his role, his discovery. I feel a little embarrassed by the high regard that runs through his writings. Even when he describes his role as Servant, and says, “Nobody did what I did, I discovered something that was previously unknown.” Indeed, I find his classification admirable, he could verify over the years. As if what was previously unexplained found its place. As if the domain of the unconscious became a science. This is the peculiarity of his approach, unheard of to my knowledge. However, as the field of knowledge is infinite, is it not better to remain modest about its field of action and its subject matter?

These are the few disadvantages that touch me in his approach. It remains that I find more advantages and it has opened at home a new field of possibilities.

La table-palette dans Le Closlieu (Paris 15ème)
La table-palette dans Le Closlieu (Paris 15ème)