Atelier as a Revolution – Study Tour 2018

This post is a reflection piece from the US College and Students Study Tour 2018 in Reggio Emilia.

One of the key features of the Reggio approach to education is their atelier.

The atelier is often simplified as a place to do art or an art studio.  This study tour presented a more nuanced and complex conceptualization of the atelier.

The Atelier is not “Doing Art” with Children

Isabella Meninno, atelierista at the Malaguzzi International Center prefaced her talk by telling us that education has typically privileged oral and written language.  Using the hundred languages metaphor (a metaphor that is meant to describe the many ways that children can communicate and express), Meninno told us that art offered numerous ways for children to make expressions and suggestions.

In other words, the atelier isn’t just about “doing art” with children.  Doing art with children has often taken the form of children producing art.  Even if we use a famous artist as inspiration, if children are simply trying to emulate or mimic the artist, then this is as if children are “photocopiers” of art.

Sometimes we think of art as about presenting reality, such as is the case in painting, drawing, or sculpting.  Again, this is not about children having a “language” for expression or suggestion.

That is not what the atelier is.

The Atelier was a Revolution

Meninno reminded us again that the schools of Reggio Emilia were born out of a cultural post-war revolution in Italy.  The people wanted to “rediscover the boundaries of their being” and tell a new story of Italy.  This revolution was taking place in Italy.

Until then, art was typically about representing reality and the appearance of things, but with the destruction of the world art was generating new intellectual roles for suggestion and expression.  A way to provide commentary.  A way to evoke a sense or feeling.

Seeing and thinking as an artist is a creative way of being, and thus there aren’t perfect formulas for art (unless, again, you just want to be a photocopier). Further, a person’s subjectivity is never denied when encountering art.  A person’s dimension of politics, culture, history and psychology are always present.

Given this, during the 1970’s when families of Reggio Emilia were discussing the pedagogy of their schools (something I really wish I could have observed), there were great forums of all people of all social classes thinking together on the topic of art and its place in the schools of Reggio Emilia.

Meanwhile, Malaguzzi always felt misgivings about how the atelier has been misinterpreted to be “described within the boundaries of art.”  To him, the atelier was always expected to be “deeply connected with sciences, math, and explaining the world.”

This was when Malaguzzi introduced the atelierista role into the schools: A person with a background in the arts or sciences, not someone who studied education, but still was a fully paid teacher in the system.

The atelier was a revolution because until then, the language of words was so privileged that it was often the only language available to children in schools.  The arts and sciences offered other languages for children to make expressions and suggestions on processes, the aesthetic dimension, and a way for adults to interpret the poetics of their expressions.  This was revolutionary.

The Languages of the Atelier

“Arts and sciences have refined grammars” Meninno said.  In art, these grammars may be described as “technique.”

But the schools of Reggio Emilia wasn’t just about “doing art” it was about expression.  They viewed expression as a right of children.  Children with different abilities as well, have the right to express in different ways.

And so during this time when the ateliers were introduced, the classroom environments became richer and richer with intelligent materials.  This didn’t exclude or preclude written word. Meninno said,

“If I live in a rich world, I need rich language to describe that rich world.  If inside my mind, if the world around me becomes richer and richer, if the schools keep asking me to describe things richer and richer, then the words I need will be richer.”

The atelier is not a school of art then.  It’s a place for expression and suggestion.



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