Ritam "Meditation and Painting: A Research Project"

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February 2006

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Meditation and Painting: A Research Project

By Claire Le Touze

Question: Mother, would you please define in a few words what you mean essentially by "FREE PROGRESS"?
Answer: A progress guided by the soul and not subjected to habits, conventions or preconceived ideas.

The Mother, On Education, p.171

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Arno Stern, a Swiss-German living in Paris and having a painting atelier for children since 50 years, has developed the concept of the "Formulation". The "Formulation" is a universal language manifesting itself as a set of signs which appears in the paintings of children and adults alike when they are given the opportunity of expressing themselves freely in certain conditions, which are:
  • A “Closlieu” or safe, quiet enclosed space which protects the participants from outer influences and outside pressure.
  • The group dynamic(s) : "the activity in the Closlieu allow the individual to realize himself among others rather than against them" (Arno Stern).
  • High quality materials and the learning of a good technique: the right position of the wrist and the hand which correctly holds the brush, and good body posture.
  • The presence of a practitioner whose role is to be the servant of the participants.
  • The absence of judgment and comment about the paintings, which are not meant to be shown but are kept by the practitioner.

Those “tracés de la mémoire” (Arno Stern) or drawings of collective memory include prenatal sensations: the children draw the evolution of the organism's formation and go symbolically through those different phases again.

To paint in the Closlieu is a joyful and deep event which cannot be explained in words. The children paint standing in front of big sheets of paper (about 50 x 70 cm) which can be extended on all sides by adding new sheets of paper. A good posture and the control of the technique are essential for the child to express himself fully. If he does not hold correctly the paint brush, he will stain himself, his hand will get tired quickly and his joy of painting will be less intense. On the contrary, a good technique will allow his whole body to participate. His hand not touching the paper and his free wrist let him paint with big movements: children of 5 or 6 years can paint easily precise big circles, rainbows, etc.

The social experience and the group dynamics (which includes ideally between 12 and 15 people of mixed ages) are essential as well. Children of the same age have a tendency to compare each other. However in the Closlieu, there is no reason to compare each other: the Formulation is a universal phenomena present in each one of us and does not belong to anybody in particular. It happens that the same signs appear simultaneously within a same session, but each person will express them in his unique style. This activity stimulates an harmonious bond among the participants: they are “compagnons de jeu” (“game partners”, Arno Stern).

This concept of Arno Stern seems particularly appropriate to Auroville where we aim at unity within diversity. This way of painting, the Formulation, is neither art nor art-therapy but, as Arno Stern explains it, it can be a preventive to therapy because it stimulates creativity, autonomy and the ability to deeper concentration. The result is not the painting in itself, (the external manifestation), but is within the child internal manifestation that Arno Stern calls the “Plusêtre”.

When I started to work at the Kindergarten in 1999, I did not know the work of Arno Stern. However, I had offered many classes since 1987 where adults and children could paint freely and I had noticed that some signs repeat themselves and appear universally. But it is here in Auroville that I realized how much very young children need to "trace" those signs. In 2000, I began to take regularly some photographs of the paintings. In between free painting sessions, I inserted some classes in which the children had to produce some technical exercises like the "chromatic circle". Then I noticed that even very young children are able, if well prepared, to achieve elaborated exercises. But I felt it was more essential for them to express this organic language. I felt also it would be interesting to connect this work to the spiritual dimension of Auroville by trying to follow Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's teachings.

In 2001, with Fabrice from Savitri Bhavan, we organized a drawing session for 5 years old (the “Blue Group” of the Kindergarten). The children began with a short meditation then could come and sit each in the center of one circle of "psychological perfection" flowers, from Matrimandir Nursery, where they would find round pieces of paper and pastels. The children could then draw with Sunil's music of Savitri in the background.

It was a wonderful and very inspiring moment for both children and adults. Now, how could I carry out in the regular sessions such a peaceful and concentrated atmosphere? I introduced a short meditation before starting to paint. I noticed a depth, a calm and a radiance from the depth of the being that did not appear previously. From August to November 2001, I offered a painting session for adults within a program named "One afternoon with Savitri", again in Savitri Bhavan. After meditating, the participants were painting while listening to Sunil's music.

I was using the book Children art through meditation – A book of peace by Marguerite Smithwhite, an English lady disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother who lived in Auroville in the early seventies. She was then teaching biology to children and she conceived an original educative material. She then travelled around the world, for more than 20 years and she created the Children's Peace Council. Peace remains at the center of Marguerite Smithwhite's work and she explains how to transmit to children that in order to establish peace on earth, one has to start to establish peace within oneself. While meditating one can call peace to come within and make it radiate towards others.

By chance in 2002 Marguerite Smithwhite settle in Pondicherry and offered every Saturday from March 2003 till March 2004, a training for the teachers of Auroville in which I took part among teachers from Udavi, Kindergarten, Deepanam and Transition schools and the Pyramid (Auroville Art School). The method she taught us, "A new education with a soul", is based on The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo and uses educational materials that she designed. The children are led to discover that everything is alive, that the Divine is everywhere, that there is consciousness even in stones (“Thy joy is there in every leaf and stone” said Sri Aurobindo) and that a human being has different parts: physical, subtle physical, vital, mental and psychic being and Jivatman.

One exercise is to meditate holding a stone in one's hands and to charge it with peace. The children will see the increase of light in the stone during meditation on Kirlian photographs. Some other Kirlian photographs show that the aura of the fingers changes: one can see an increase of light after a meditation on peace. Beauty and colours appear after chanting mantras and prayers. However, the aura becomes ugly and damaged after being angry or taking drugs. These discoveries have an impact on the children.

Doris and Namah, teachers in Deepanam School and myself experimented Marguerite Smithwhite's method in the school - years 2003-2004 and 2004-2005. Doris brought her group of children (7-8 years) to the painting room. Namah, an experienced yoga teacher, directed the meditations and "OM" chanting and I organized the painting. This year, this activity is offered as free choice for the students of Deepanam school between 7 to 10 years, unfortunately without Namah. Since two years, Nathalie an experienced children photographer is taking regularly beautiful photos of the children and the paintings. Some of the paintings, photos taken before I started to practice the concept of Arno Stern (where paintings are not shown) were used by Cecilia to do beautiful postcards and raise money for educational projects in Auroville.

In December 2003, I had met a Swiss lady called Petrouchka (Patricia Rosset) who has been working with the concept of Arno Stern since 12 years. She was interested in my research and explained to me the work concept of Arno Stern. In response to my enthusiasm she accepted to come to Auroville for 6 months in 2004-05 in order to teach me. In return, I taught her the method of Marguerite Smithwhite which I had learned the previous year. During her stay in Auroville, Petrouchka offered painting sessions according to Arno Stern to many children from Kindergarten and Transition schools as well as to a group of adults. Two closlieu were installed in Auroville, one in my classroom in Kindergarten and the other in Transition School. The walls were covered by big pin-board type panels covered with cloth where the sheets of paper can easily be fixed. The participants paint standing. Two "table palettes" were built, one for each school. Each table has 18 colours and for each colour there is a pot of paint and one of water, 2 paint brushes (one big and one small) placed horizontally on 2 holders in such a way that the child can easily grab the center of the handle where the paintbrush should be held. When a child wishes to mix colours, he or she must dip the tip of 2 of his fingers, dry and clean, in 2 pots of colours of his/her choice and mix them. If he/she likes the colour on the tip of his/her fingers, the educator will prepare the blend in a small pot, which someone else can use after the child. It is not rare that in one session 10 colours or more are mixed and that as a result around 30 colours are available for painting.

The painting room is a quiet space with no other paintings or pictures on the walls. The less exterior influences, the more the children will become autonomous and creative. Creativity will be useful in any work the child will do later. With the help of Petrouchka the painting sessions at Kindergarten improved a lot and I decided to start these sessions with a short class following the method of Marguerite Smithwhite on a particular theme, i.e. stones, trees, human beings, water etc. For example, each child gets a piece of granite. The teacher explains that granite is the most common stone on earth. Then each child can also get a bit of sand on the hand. Afterwards the children can look at those "tiny stones" (the sand) through a magnifying glass. We explain to them that, if we have a bigger magnifying glass on a camera we can take a photo of a tiny piece of granite (size of one sand grain) x 150. We show them this microphotography of granite, which is particularly beautiful and colourful. All this appears in this grey stone! Then, we show a tiny piece of that photo, again x 150: beautiful flower-shapes appear "in the stone is the aspiration for the next stage of evolution" (Marguerite Smithwhite).

These classes raise a lot of questions from the children i.e.

  • Are stones really living?
  • Is the baby doll alive? (we use a baby doll as educational material).
  • Will we all die?
  • Can we know when we will die?
  • How many lives do we have? etc.

In order to answer the questions, I always refer to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. To the question “is the baby doll living?” the answer was, “Not like you and me; it is not a real human being, but there is life and consciousness in matter. Therefore you should handle it with care.” After that, little children often kiss the baby doll with such a tenderness!

Not only do the children ask questions, they also tell about their own experiences. Dreams, dramatic or joyful events, feelings… After this exchange, the children close their eyes and meditate for a few minutes. The quietest child may stand up first and start to paint, and so on.

Why this combination of the concepts of Marguerite Smithwhite and of Arno Stern? For me, those two concepts, reveal treasures which were hiding in the child.

"True education must reveal what is already present in the developing being and makes it blossom. Just as flowers blossom in the sun, children blossom in joy".

The Mother

In Arno Stern's concept, there is no meditation before painting. However, meditation makes children more receptive and quiet, they go deeply inward and after are more concentrated while painting. In Marguerite Smithwhite’s method, after the meditations, which are often beautiful and deep, people sit at tables and paint, but they get no training on the painting technique itself. Each concept reveals things that are not there in other types of painting.

In my work, I used meditation and painting before and those two trainings came at the right time to help me to go towards a type of education which could be typically Aurovilian. The research is still going on…

In order to make it possible for more children to benefit from this project, I started to train more teachers: the first person is Sandrine, a trained and experienced teacher in different areas including painting and she works in Transition school since years. She has followed the classes offered by Marguerite Smithwhite and showed a great interest in the concept of Arno Stern during the visit of Petrouchka. Since July 2005, Sandrine and I are offering a painting atelier for teachers from Auroville schools every Saturday morning in Transition School. Sandrine comes also one day weekly to my painting classes in Kindergarten to learn. Now (December 2005) she is fully trained and is starting her own painting atelier for children of different ages as a free choice activity after their normal classes in Transition.

I will now start to train Mita who teaches in Udavi School and has learned the system of integral education based on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother at Mirambika in New Delhi. She was in charge of the art-room there.

The research project "Painting with children" is supported by SAIIER and the Government of India. This project would not have been possible without the loving support of the Kindergarten team. Several exhibitions have been organised in Auroville, the last one was held in Pitanga in October/November 2005 with photos of children taken by Nathalie and explanations about the research.

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See also