The Everywhere Atelier

A two-year-old child traces some marks with a stick in the mud. Another one is playing with water and different containers in the kitchen. A group of kids are painting on the easels of the art room. A ceramist models a sculpture in his studio. A man of the Paleolithic engraves an antelope in a cave.

What do these so different events have in common?

Exploring the world belongs to our shared human nature, as well as communicating and expressing ourselves through what we find around us. It is always about a transformative relationship between yourself and the world, between the inside and the outside, in both directions.

This happens since the very beginning through the free play in early childhood. Then it flows into the various disciplines and educational curriculum, until it is somehow integrated into adult life, for example becoming the core of some creative professions or, at worst, almost disappearing in certain daily routines. In any case, it always remains a need and a potential of human nature.

The atelier is a space-time frame intentionally set up for continuing to develop and enrich this transformative interaction with the world, without other objectives than the interaction itself, going where it will take us.

Do you remember how important it was to define a space for playing in your childhood, carefully choosing objects and stuff that were part of the game? Now, add to that involvement your actual knowledge and awarness acquired over time, and you will have a good starting point for setting up an atelier.

In the Italian educational landscape, the atelier and the atelierista were introduced by Loris Malaguzzi in the preschools of Reggio Emilia. It was a revolutionary act, putting the expressive languages (drawing, modeling, music, dance, body movement, stories) at the center of learning processes.

Since then, the research about several possible “shapes” of the atelier has continued to extend, including unconventional materials and fields: ateliers of light, of food, of gear… up to the concept of a spread atelier in recent years, coming out of a dedicated room to other areas of the school (classrooms, entrance, gardens, kitchen) and even the city (squares, shops, parks).

It is not about where. Meaningful processes can happen everywhere.

That’s why the most common objection of many educators – We do not have an extra room! – is just a very weak, apparent obstacle. The atelier is not necessarily a room.

This applies to any educational contexts, to the dimension of personal research and others fields, like the therapeutic one. Creating an atelier – for themselves or for others – means first of all selecting a part of the world, not only through physical boundaries but with a certain kind of insight and approach.

Here are a few of the many possible variations, explored by me or by some very good artists, art therapists and friends of mine (click them for more info):

You can create again and again endless containing “frames”:  it is a world within a world as Nona Orbach defines it in the book The Good Enough Studio. A space where we allow ourselves and others to play just for the sake of it, without a product or a goal or to be achieved.

Are there certain minimum conditions to enable this microcosmos? From the point of view of space and materials, is there something absolutely necessary?  

During the Covid emergency, I remember many teachers were really disoriented for the impossibility of using most of materials.

What do we do now? We have almost nothing! – as if the ability to play, explore and create was due to some particular materials… Of course, there are differences. For example, the so-called “artistic” materials come from a tradition that makes them particularly suitable for a certain type of expressive research (we will go into this topic in another post).

It is the world itself, with all the things it contains, that represents a really interesting interlocutor… and also, have you ever thought of the potential of an empty space? Maybe just with a tool or a material in the center of it?

Gallizi Preschool, Italy (Fano)

The “atelier-bubble” is everything except impermeable, always related and connected to its context, while being safe and defined by some kind of boundaries. Therefore, there are neither templates nor two identical ateliers. Moreover, a selection is still necessary: there is always a more or less conscious choice of tools, objects, materials. This enables the development of a creative potential that would otherwise be dispersed or remain latent.

A certain “limitation” often occurs spontaneously, as children play in a defined area – to the exclusion of all else. Despite this spontaneous ability, a space can sometimes be so hyper stimulating, saturated and dispersive that it makes it very difficult to orient, pause, focus and immerse  in the flow of a creative process.

Thus, the question about what and how many materials to choose is really crucial. We will investigate it in the next posts.

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