EPISODE 17: THE STORY ABOUT

The Four Es of Creativity

with Trevor Bryan

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Letting kids explore where their heart is, that authentic voice that they have and letting them connect to their audience, whether it’s a gigantic audience or a very small audience, is really important for our educators to think about.

Jamie
Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. Pablo Picasso I’m Jamie Hipp and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On today’s episode, we spend time with Trevor Bryan, a self-described art teacher who writes. That is a serious understatement. Trevor has been an art teacher in New Jersey for over two decades, and his first book, The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Text to Foster Comprehension, Conversation and Confidence, was published in 2019 through Stenhouse Publishers. Welcome, Trevor. Thank you for joining us today.

Trevor
Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to share.

Jamie

We are so excited to learn more about your model. The four Es of creativity is something that both arts teachers and classroom teachers, I think pre K through 12th grade or even beyond into college, could really benefit from. So tell us how this originated.

Trevor

Sure, so I have my background is in arts education. And, right, this idea of what makes art good comes up constantly, and it’s something that has kind of hounded me my whole career is in trying to explain, you know, artworks that are kind of out there to people who don’t necessarily have a background in arts education or in art history. And so the Four Es started as a way of thinking about what makes these different types of artworks good. We tend to focus a lot on skills and arts education, but if you look at professional work, a lot of the work isn’t necessarily based on skills. So if it’s not based on skills, what else is in the artwork that allows us to deem that good and then off of that, it sort of became also a way of thinking about making artworks. So it’s not only categorizing the finished product, but it kind of gave me a way of talking about how artists, how different artists work and in thinking about how different artists work, it allowed me to start thinking about my own students and maybe thinking about the ways that they work. And so kids who maybe aren’t as skilled we could still look for positive creative habits or abilities in them, even if we’re not looking at skills and, you know, technique.

Jamie

Wow, I really need the four Es in my life specifically because I recently saw this artwork shown in a gallery of a banana duct-taped to a wall, and the artist called it art, and everyone in the room believed it to be art. Could we use the four Es with something like that?

Trevor

Uh, theoretically, you could. So it’s not going to give you an answer as to why this is deemed good, but it kind of classifies work in to three categories – in that some artwork is famous because of the skill in the technique. Some artwork is famous because it connects emotionally, and that may have a high level of skill or technique. Apply to it or it may not, and some artists become famous because of their ability to explore and push new boundaries. Um, and so classifying work that way. The banana, I believe although it’s there’s a little bit of a schtick to that. I would believe would fall under exploration, though, and we’ll see if that holds up over the, you know, the… over time.

Jamie

Over the foreseeable future, positively. So I have the four E model in front of me. Can you take us through each of the Es as relate to students that you’ve worked with? Um, not only in your visual art classroom elementary, of course, but the students that you’ve worked with K-12.

Trevor

Yeah… so the first E is the idea of environment. And, uh, I read a book called Range by David Epstein, that kind of laid out this, um, this idea about environments and that environments are either kind or environments are what are called wicked. The learning  environments. And that it was a huge, um ah ha moment for me because what I realized is that in schools, schools want a kind environment. They want things to be measurable, and they want things to be known. And they want to believe that if we put this test in front of a kid that there’s one particular answer. And if we if the kid comes up with this particular answer, we’re doing a good job, and the reality is that in life we operate in wicked environments. We don’t know. Businesses change. Business models change. Creativity is the same way that to write a best selling novel, there isn’t any one path that’s going to work. It’s not just about learning these skills, and then you go off and write your bestseller. You’re operating in a wicked environment where you’re getting different feedback. There’s unknown answers, you’re dealing with, you know, people who may like this genre or not like this genre. And so I started to think about environment in the classroom and thinking about the art room as a wicked environment. And can kids become comfortable operating in a wicked environment, I think is a really important skill for 21st-century learners because when they go out into the world, when they go to open up their own business, when they go to make a movie or whatever it is, they’re going to do,they’re going to be operating in a wicked environment. And learning how to navigate that and learning how to feel comfortable navigating a wicked environment, I think is really important. So that’s the first E.

Jamie
And I’m so surprised to hear you say that you are almost keeping this wicked environment and helping students navigate it instead of or in lieu of transforming your art room into a kind environment. Can you talk about walking that line?

Trevor
Sure. So when I think of arts education and I think this applies to a lot of arts education, we tend to focus on skills and techniques because they’re the most measurable aspects. And so if we want to prove growth and prove learning, what we really have is we have, you know, things that are very familiar things, that are known. And so trying to move away from just focusing on skills and techniques which may or may not be applicable to a student’s voice is something that I kind of wanted to do. But then, if I move away from skills and techniques, what do I replace that with? How do I go about thinking about what the room is like? And the answer is really trying is really comes down to that idea of the wicked environment that replacing the kind environment with a wicked environment is beneficial to the student.

Jamie
100% preparing them for the real world. So moving into the second E. We’re going from environment to execution. Hopefully not the wicked execution. Tell us about execution.

Trevor
Yeah, so execution is the skills and the techniques aspect. How well this is done. And for a lot of arts educators, we regardless of the domain that we’re teaching, we focus a lot of on skills and techniques. And the reality is that a lot of very creative people, people who are successful creators, don’t necessarily aren’t necessarily successful because of their skills and techniques. And a lot of times when artists or art makers or creators abandon traditional skills and techniques, is when they flourish, it’s when they share – they learn how to share their voice or find a voice or find that unique path that makes their work interesting. And so I think skills and techniques are important. But I think sometimes in arts education, we’ve had a tendency to overstate their importance, and we’ve had a tendency say that every student needs these skills and techniques that this is the basis for becoming a creator regardless of the domain. And when we look at professional work, that’s just it. It’s just not true. Um, And so, uh, but… But the first part of… the first, the second E is execution thinking about skills and techniques and then within the skills and techniques we have what I call given skills and what I have called found skills. And given skills are when we say, um, here’s perspective, this I’m gonna show you how to do this. And we… A lot of times we think that’s the most important thing that we as an adult, as someone who’s highly trained, we’re going to give you the skills that you need. And when we look at professional creators, one of thing that they have a tendency to do is they have a tendency to kind of think about the work that they want to make, and if they don’t have those skills, they go and seek them. They go and figure out what skills they need in order to make the kind of work they want. So getting kids used to this idea or giving them space to go and find skills, I think is a really important skill in itself.

Jamie
Yes, and pushing the envelope and pushing the boundaries and thinking outside of the box or just replication, I would agree it’s so important. Okay, moving on to the third E, which I am probably the most interested in, this idea of emotion. Are we talking about student emotion or the emotion evoked by a piece of art?

Trevor
It could be either. So a lot of the work that I do when I wrote the Art of Comprehension, my book that uses visual texts to explore so as a way of teaching comprehension skills basically, a lot – the way that I found talking about work or artwork and even books is very helpful was discussing it through mood. And so this kind of ties into that work where for some, for some artists, it’s not the skills that makes their artwork resonate with the audience. It’s their ability to connect emotionally with the audience, and this could be a very simple song. It could be a very simple story. It could be a little sketch, and so sometimes it’s, uh, it’s underappreciated, that really powerful artwork that may be incredibly simple has an ability to connect to a viewer. Or it might simply be that the artist, the maker, is super enthusiastic about this particular project, and it might be a little bit offbeat. But this is where their heart is. And I think letting kids explore where their heart is that authentic voice that they have, um, and letting them connect to their audience, whether it’s a gigantic audience for a very small audience, is really important for our educators to think about.

Jamie
Do you have specific masterworks that you have in mind, or you definitely, use that convey different emotions?

Trevor
So I use… in my work, I use a lot of picture books, and I think picture books are a really good example of, you know, illustrators who may or may not, um, their work may or may not be driven by their skills. It’s often based on their ability to connect, and so they might be very simple drawings, very simple renderings. But they have the ability to connect very powerfully with that audience, And I think, you know, even some of you know, modern artists. Rothko right? Mark Rothko as a as a professional artist. It’s not his skills and technique that wowed everybody. It was that his paintings, as simple as they were, really connected emotionally with an audience. And I think we see this over and over again. Um, you know, punk music is another good example. A lot of times it’s played on just a few chords, so it’s not the, uh it’s not their ability to play instruments that resonates with the audience. It’s the mood of the song and the mood they evoke in their audience, and that’s how they connect.

Jamie
I’m fascinated by this idea of student choice and a choice over their emotion, choice over how they’re connecting to the audience and that you’re showing – when I asked about masterworks, you didn’t bring up a quote-unquote famous artist. You weren’t talking about Matisse. You weren’t talking about Picasso or Van Gogh. It was you’re using picture books many students are probably familiar with and the illustrations within them. How else do you use choice in your classroom?

Trevor
So I let kids basically work on what they want to work on with the materials that they want to work with. And also work with the partners that they wanna work to work with also. Because I think one of the things that’s missing in a lots of arts education is this idea of finding what Peter Reynolds would call kindred spirits. And I think creative work is… the professional creators that I know have a have a very either small or large circle of support that really helps them to, um, get through their work, to create work, that are inspired to create their work, to explore different ideas, to find new pieces of information, to gather ideas. And I think… having… giving kids opportunities to work with partners and find kindred spirits, people who they enjoy working, with people who they can learn from, is a really valuable part of arts education. And I think when you look at professional creators, that’s something that they’ve all been able to do successfully.

Jamie
Does this idea of finding kindred spirits play into the fourth E of exploration?

Trevor
Absolutely.

Jamie
In what way?

Trevor
One of the things that has influenced me the most is there’s ah, an artist by the name of Momo, um, who is my age, and he is basically a muralist. If you know the life water bottles that have come out in the past couple of years. He was the first artist on those. He was one of my best friends growing up when we were about 7, 8, 9 years old. And it’s been a fascinating experience for me to, um, be with someone almost every day. He lived right behind me. We walked to school together and to watch him operate as an 8, 9, 10 maybe 11-year-old kid, um, and then watch him as a professional artist. We kind of lost touch for a few years and a couple of years ago we got back together and, um, you know, I got to work on a mural project with him in Manhattan. I actually got to work on three with him that summer and showing up and working with him at 45 was exactly the same experience as showing up at 8 and 9, going over his house and being like, What are we working on Dave? And this is what we’re working on. And he is kind of famous for figuring out, um, his own methods of painting and then also making his own tools. And so he has a very highly explorative process. But that was the same thing he was doing when he was 8 years old, 9 years old, when he got an idea he just explored it and he would exhaust it until he kind of moved on to something else. And he would either use that information or, you know, just put it aside for now. But it was a fascinating realization that he would go out and find skills. He would create skills. He’d figure out skills that he needed in order to paint murals. But he was doing this stuff at 9. And I thought, Man, I want, you know, my students to be doing that work because who knows where it’s going to go? No one in a million years would have ever predicted that Dave is doing the type of work that he’s doing because it was so explorative. And his girlfriend, who is a very well known artist, Swoon, does a lot of the same thing that she gets an idea in her head, and then she finds people who can help her to bring it to life. And so their work is so much a part of finding kindred spirits who can help them to bring their ideas to life and also finding the skills that they need in order to bring these things to life. But they’re all very highly explorative practices. And so that has influenced me just tremendously in my own thinking of what arts education should look like.

Jamie
Amazing. The next time we’re in New York, where can we find these collaborative murals?

Trevor
Unfortunately, the ones that I did are all in private office spaces. In Dumbo, he has a big mural along the road. I’m not sure which which road that in, but he, all over the world. So you you know, you’ll find Momo’s paintings. He actually has the biggest mural in Philadelphia for the Mural Arts Project, which is part of – right, so that mural is, I think, almost 25 stories tall and part of what his process… He has, like 10 days to do these. And so he has to figure out ways of being able to create a 25 story mural in 10 days. And so those are, that’s part of the skill set that he’s developed, right, and the systems that he has for designing these murals allow him to do that work really quickly.

Jamie
He is obviously very creative, but also these critical thinking skills that must come into play in all of these integrated skills between, when you think about a 25 story mural, the science of the weather during that 10 day period, the mathematics of sketching it out and maybe projecting it out onto 25 stories, the people skills it must take to collaborate with others to make his vision a reality. It’s really incredible.

Trevor
Yeah, he started where – when his work started to take off, he got interested in applied geometry as a way of creating murals that he could reproduce and draw quickly. And so his earlier work about 20 years ago had a lot to do with applied geometry. And so is his exploration of applied geometry. And coming up with these systems for drawing that kind of launched his career for the work that he’s basically known for.

Jamie
That is the coolest, so shifting back into your work. I know you have written this fabulous book, the Art of Comprehension, and I know it really centers around literacy through the arts and visual text specifically. Where can we find this book? And is there a new book in the works maybe?

Trevor
So, uh, the Art of Comprehension can be found through Stenhouse Publishers, it came out in 2019 and I have a couple things that I’m working on. There’s nothing solid yet, but hopefully, I’m hopefully working on a book about story sharing. And so I think kids today have a lot of ways of telling stories and understanding how stories work is affable, whether kids were doing animation or graphic novels or writing traditional stories. So I’m working on a project right now, and hopefully that will be available soonish.

Jamie
Trevor, you are a self-proclaimed teacher who writes and talking about the book from 2019 and now the four E model and all of these projects in the works. Where do you find the time to do all of these passion projects?

Trevor
Mostly, uh, I utilize that time in the early morning. I try and get get up early and do a lot of my writing and thinking. I’ll do a lot of reading during my lunch period and explore, you know, different ideas and different papers and different concepts. But really early in the morning is usually where I get the bulk of my work done. Unless I’m really in the middle of something and then sometimes I can work a little bit at night. Or, you know, if I have 15 minutes, I’m really keyed in on what I want to be doing. But yeah, the early morning hours are magical sometimes, and sometimes they’re miserable.

Jamie
Real life with Trevor Bryan. You said the word explore in that past answer just now and it takes me back to the four Es. Are each of the Es done in this sequence? Environment, execution, emotion and exploration. Or is it a cyclical process?

Trevor
Yeah, I think it goes, I think go back and forth. So at times you’re going to find skills through exploration that you need, and so you’re going to cycle through a skills or a found skills or looking for certain information. Sometimes you’re going to be operating in a kind environment where you know exactly what you want to do and how to do it. Other times, you’re gonna be figuring problems out and I think the environment changes constantly. Um, and then you’re the balance between exploration and maybe practicing or mastering skills and techniques that you need, um, and then also figuring out ways of connecting with the audience that you want. That’s always gonna be a little bit wicked in a lot of cases, especially with new work. And that’s I think, um, one of the one of the things that’s so difficult for people to understand is that highly creative work is always about new work. It’s always different. And so for people who are creating really what would be deemed creative work, it’s unfamiliar by its nature. It’s because it’s born out of a wicked environment. It’s new. No one understands it. No one knows it. And so it’s always this process of kind of cycling through these. But I think just having the four Es gives educators and students a way of thinking about where their students are, thinking about the type of work that they’re doing, thinking about the work that they are seeing in front of them whether they’re done by, you know, artists a long time ago, or artists now, and it just helps to frame the conversation. So the conversation about creativity becomes a little bit less abstract and a little bit more concrete.

Jamie
Where can we find out more about your work and stay in touch with you? Hopefully, you’re going to tell us some kind environments where we can do that?

Trevor
The kind environments that have a part of are ah, twitter, which for many of you might not be that kind anymore.

Jamie
It sounds like a wicked environment to me!

Trevor
That is pretty wicked these days. But there’s also, um, my I run a, I have a blog with my buddy Rich Czyz, who wrote Four o’clock Faculty and the name of that blog is fouroclockfaculty.com.. Um, and then, um, you can get in touch with me through my publisher, Stenhouse. If you go through Trevor Bryan, my author’s page, or you can also probably reach me through the Art of Comprehension page.

Jamie
Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.