Celebrating Creativity with Peter H. Reynolds and Paul Reynolds (Ep. 148)

Author and artist Peter Reynolds–along with his twin brother Paul–join Nic today for a very special episode of Everyday Art Room. Listen to their wide-ranging conversation about creativity, opening a bookstore, the beginnings of Dot Day, and so much more!  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: I love the book, The Dot, it’s one of my favorites so I was super excited when I saw that the NOW conference is inviting Peter Reynolds to the conference. He is going to be our keynote speaker for NOW this summer and I was really excited. But then, well, I almost fell off my seat because I was asked to interview Peter Reynolds. And then when we were getting started on our interview, his brother Paul was available as well so I got a two for one. Peter and Paul Reynolds are our guests on Everyday Art Room today. And I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Welcome guys. Not a ton of introduction is really going to be needed here. We have Peter Reynolds and his brother Paul Reynolds here to talk to us today. They are going to be at the NOW conference and we’re just really excited to have you so welcome. Welcome you guys.

Peter Reynolds:
Thank you. Wonderful to be here with you.

Paul Reynolds:

Nic: Yeah, okay. Let’s get started. Art teachers know you. They know your books, they know several of your books and your style for sure. But let’s get started with a little bit more personal level and let’s talk about your relationship with Paul, who we just introduced. I know that you guys have a better relationship with your business as well as on a personal level of being brothers. Can you talk to that a little bit? What is your relationship and your working collaboration?

Peter: Yeah, well, I always say I was one of the lucky ones. I was born with my best friend, Paul, and he’s my big brother by 14 minutes. And it’s funny because I think in some ways that sort of set the course because I am the dreamer of the duo and Paul kind of gets things done. And so it makes sense that Paul would have been ready to be born first. And left me behind for a 14-minute nap. And then when we emerged, we emerged as a duo and we have shared the journey very closely. And while we are identical twins and there’s certainly, there’s a lot that is the same there’s also a lot that’s different. Which I think kind of informs our work. We’re really big on promoting, thinking about what makes you unique, being born a twin, everyone, oh, you’re identical twins.

And they’re sort of fascinated with how we’re the same, but really every single one of us, including identical twins, we’re all different. And that’s what makes us humans really, really interesting because we have different passions, different dreams, different talents. And I think the role of an art teacher, educator is to draw that out and help kids understand, who are they? How are they unique? How are they different? And manifest itself in style, in how boldly you make your lines. But you can also encourage kids to grow. And to make bolder lines and splash with more color or be more precise. It depends on where you want to go.

And speaking of precision, Paul, you probably can speak to this. I love drawing quickly and I probably draw maybe 20 to 40 drawings every day, probably more on napkins and envelopes as I’m chatting to people. And Paul you’ve always gravitated towards more detail and precision.

Paul: Right and that is interesting that we’re both artists and people would assume that we’re, oh, you must have the same art style, but it’s very different art style. And I think I have maybe, we have different temperaments and I patience is one of the things that I was born with or fostered along the way. And so my art style in some ways is on one end of the spectrum is very detailed and on the other end of the spectrum is very abstract. And not that people in the podcast can see this, but there’s a picture I just found from the files from when I was 15 years old of my sister. And that is very, very detailed.

Nic: Yes. Extremely. Wow. That’s beautiful.

Peter: Paul, from really, it was amazing how early that photorealism took off and you found that pencil and it just spoke to you and finding the right tool, I think that’s always fascinating too. Because I think it tells us about who you are. Why does a chisel and a stone speak to you while oil and a brush speaks to someone else or ink and watercolor? And as Paul said, Paul’s definitely more patient than I am. I love to get things done and fast. And that’s why give me a Sharpie marker and a regular eight and a half sheet of paper, copier paper and I’m quite happy.

Paul: There was one moment in time when Peter was living in Harvard Square and there was an old Sears Roebuck down the street, and he would go in to get supplies to the apartment. And he noticed that there were dented and returned cans of paint and that people didn’t want because it was quote-unquote, the wrong color. As Peter called them, the orphaned paints, they just orphaned there. And so one day he went in and told the paint guy, “How much for everything there?” He bought all the paint, brought them back to the apartment and he started what we call the orphan painting series. All the paintings that he did with just interior latex paint, he just threw on canvases. And they are some of my favorite pictures. We’ll have to send you some of those pictures.

Peter: Yeah. Well, yeah, I think it was maybe if it was $15, I think, yeah, I think it was about that. And it was amazing to me that I had so much paint for so little money and I think when that helped me relax too. And I think as artists, sometimes we get, you go to the art store and you see that little tube of cobalt blue paint and you look and it’s 22 bucks for this tiny little thing of blue paint. And I think for us to really let loose what’s inside, find cheaper materials, find cardboard, find wood, find things that you, in a sense you don’t care about. I often tell people, “Whatever you do, don’t get a really super fancy journal the kind with ribbons and leather-bound because you’ll never want to write in it.” Or very few people, they feel like they’re not worthy to make marks in it.

Just run down to the stationery shop and just get yourself, I actually get three by five note cards. Those are my favorites. And I just dash things out quickly without worry. Which of course, that’s the theme of my book, Ish, which is just to not worry about getting it just right. But just do a lot of it. Just let it flow. Let those loose lines spring out without worry.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, and I would say that that word “ish” has become part of my vernacular. Use it all the time. And it’s due to that, your book and due to the idea of what ish really means. That’s amazing. Now both of you guys, well actually, maybe you’ll have to explain this to me. Are both of you co-owners of the bookstore that you guys run?

Peter: Yes. This is a family-owned bookstore and 17 years ago I looked around town and noticed that we didn’t have a bookstore. And I thought that’s a very, very sad thing. And rather than just saying, “It’s a sad thing,” I decided to do something about it. And I actually, I picked up my paintbrush and I painted a scene of a bookstore based on this tailor shop that was closing after 60 years. It decided to close. And I loved the hardwood floor and the tin ceilings. And I said, “I can imagine a bookstore.” I illustrated the bookstore. And then I had dear friend, Dawn Hayley Morton, whose very left-brained and she teamed up with Paul who’s very organized and his amazing wife, Janet who was in the publishing business and is also super organized. And we basically we formed this little team and we opened up a bookstore and here we are, 17 years later. And the Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham, Massachusetts, which is our hometown is still hopping.

Paul: I think that that’s the power of creativity. It’s not just in the art room, but it’s to envision things that don’t exist yet. And to have that ability to be a visual thinker and then have that superhuman talent of saying, “Oh, I can actually show you what I’m thinking.” And Pete literally sketched out this vision for this store. And by virtue of that conversion process, he actually made it real. And as soon as you see the image, then you get people excited about the vision and people want in. And here we are, 17 years later, the Blue Bunny is just, it keeps on hopping. And we did the same thing with FableVision and creating an educational technology company. We’re based in the Boston Children’s Museum, super fun, playful place. That idea, that Pete came up with the name, FableVision. And I think that that’s key Pete too, when you say is that blend of story and visionary capability.

Peter: Right. Yeah. That was fun coming up with the name. I knew that we were going to do purposeful media and of course, a fable is a teaching story and I’m a big believer that story is still one of the most powerful technologies we have for teaching, for inspiring and informing. And so I thought fable has got to be part of this name and then vision. I love that word vision. It’s being able to see the things that do not yet exist. And creative people are very, very good at that. They’re very good at seeing things before they actually happen. Even when I’m drawing, I can see the drawing flash in front of me and my pencil or pen basically is just tracing what this flash is in my mind. And so I stuck those two words together, FableVision, and I encourage people to name their studios if they haven’t. If you have a classroom rather than calling it, B7 or the art room, it’s a studio. It deserves a name, come up with a good name. Maybe have kids rename it every year, design logos for it, do t-shirts.

And my current studio is called The Sanctuary and I really needed to carve out a space to hear myself think and I really encourage everybody who’s listening, make sure that you have your space. There’s so much incoming. There’s so many demands on you. There’s so much to read. There’s so many posts. There’s so much social media. There’s so many books, there’s so many films, there’s all of this stuff coming at you and being put into you. And it’s very, very hard sometimes to hear your voice. That voice that’s inside of you. And if you give yourself some time and space, you will, you’ll hear it. And it’s a beautiful thing when it happens.

Nic: Oh, I love it. You’re talking to the right audience for sure here. I’m sitting here with my head bobbing up and down the whole time. I know what you’re talking about and I know our listeners are going to as well. You’re speaking to the right audience. Speaking of that audience, you have a huge fan group amongst the art teachers. And I know that Dot Day is celebrated within classrooms, within art classrooms, within homeschools throughout the world. Dot Day is based on your book, The Dot. Tell me about how Dot Day came and how it evolved and maybe your takeaways of what it looks like now.

Peter: Yeah. International Dot Day. Yeah. Well, it started with a teacher who, as we like to say, activated the book. He read the book, but then he allowed the kids to kind of dive in more deeply. And in their process of diving, they noticed that in the book, in the copyright section, it says release date, September 15th, 2003. They asked their teacher, Mr. Shay, Terry Shay, “Is that the birthday of the book?” And so he said, “Well, why don’t we ask the author?” They wrote me a letter and asked me, “Is that the birthday of the book?” And I thought, what a great idea. Yeah, sure. That’s the birthday so they had a party, they had a party for the book and they made dots.

Paul: One stipulation didn’t you, Pete? They were thinking, can we celebrate it on September 15th? And you said, “September 15th ish.”

Peter: Oh yeah. Yes.

Nic: Around the 15th.

Peter: Yes, around there. Right. It doesn’t. Right. September 15th ish is fine. And so, yeah, so they painted dots and they brought in Dot food and they wore Dot clothing and they signed their dots and they made frames for their dots and they created a gallery. And of course, Mr. Shay posted it on Facebook and his teacher friends were like, hey, we missed out, you’re going to do it again next year. And he’s like, “Yes, join me.” I think the next year maybe he had 40 or 50 teachers and of course they posted. And then the next year it was a couple of thousand and then 15,000 the next year. And it just keeps going.

Paul: That’s about when we got involved. When we heard that it reached 17,500 and I think I had him repeat that. Did you say 17,500 teachers, librarians, students celebrating? And I think at that point it was in five or six states and I’d say, “Well, there’s something going on there.” And so we adopted it as a project with our nonprofit, which is the Reynolds Center for Teaching, Learning and Creativity, Reynolds TLC. And that year, it jumped to 850,000 participants in 50 countries, I think. And that was totally unexpected. We’ve done a lot of things on our creative journey and that one even surprised us that I think the world was hungry for some way to connect and share those universal truths around creativity and also connecting creativity to purpose. Sort of how are you going to make your mark in the world? How will you use your creativity to move this world a better place?

Which is just, it’s so nourishing for us. And I get giddy. I honestly, I get giddy. Pete knows it. I’m insufferable, especially as we approach September 15th. Seeing all these amazing teachers and they’re sending in videos and photographs of murals and projects and interactives and it is, I call it very social studies because we’re also connecting with people around the globe. There are places I literally have to look to figure out where is that country? I didn’t even know it was the country. How many countries are there? And then we dig in every country that joined. I began doing the research and also then connecting with people. And it is very social studies. We’re actually connecting human beings around the planet.

Peter: Yeah. And I like to point out to teachers, to ask teachers, have your kids figure out how many countries there are, how many countries celebrate Dot Day and what countries do not celebrate Dot Day. And it’s very interesting, the list of countries that do not celebrate International Dot Day. And probably not a big surprise that these are countries that do not encourage original thinking. They want, they’re state run, they want their people in line and thinking the state approved thoughts. And it’s a good reminder that creativity is incredibly powerful. And it’s very, very much the foundation of our democracy because creativity means being generous of spirit. Being able to juggle opposing points of view in a peaceful harmonious way and learn from it. And it’s so it’s the arts are really powerful. That’s a really, that was a great lesson for me when I took a look at that list of the countries that don’t. And of course my hope is that one day that every country will celebrate International Dot Day because I think it will be a better, more peaceful world.

Nic: That’s beautiful to know that you have a part of that. That it started with a dot, your little dot that you started. Speaking with about this reaching out and watching something grow and develop, I know that you have been reading on Facebook on a regular basis during quarantine. Has it been only your books, the books that you have written?

Peter: It started out with reading my books.

Nic: Gotcha.

Peter: It just seems sort of the natural. Of course, I started with The Dot. It starts with a dot and then I, of course the quarantine went on and on and on.

Nic: Sure does.

Peter: It was quite, it was actually exhausting. I was doing it every day. And then I decided I would do it twice on Fridays on Facebook and Instagram. And it was, and then I decided to start reading other people’s books as well. And, certain books, they were just the right book to read and The Earth Book by Todd Parr, read that. I read Listen by Holly McGhee and that was when I lost a dear friend, Bill Norris during the pandemic. And I knew I needed a special book and I just, I was in my bookstore and I was scanning through all the books and we have hundreds and hundreds of books. And this book, Listen, just kind of stood out to me and so I started reading it and I’m like, it’s just such a lovely, lovely book. And it’s beautifully illustrated by Pascal Lemaître.

And I said, “Yeah, this’ll be the book.” I read the book and I read it live. And it was very difficult emotional for me to do it live because I dedicated it to Bill and I get to the last page and Holly, Pascal had left the dedication to the last page. I read the dedication. It was to Bill and Jean Steig and Bill Steig illustrated Shrek among many other books. And his wife is also an amazing artist. She uses found objects, Jean Steig. And what was sort of a cosmic coincidence is that my friend, Bill, who I had lost the week before had his partner, her name is Jeanie. It said to Bill and Jean and I thought, well, that’s sort of the universe speaking once again. And so it was the right book at the right time.

And I think that’s the magic of educators finding, helping kids find the right book at the right time that speaks to them. And that sometimes kids can find it on their own, but often they need someone to guide them there. And so I’m a big advocate of obviously of books, no matter what you’re teaching, whether it’s math or science or art, books and narrative and stories is really, really powerful. And we need to blend them more.

Nic: Yeah. That’s beautiful. Speaking of reading books out loud, I’ve heard that Mr. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama read your book. Tell me about how you found out about that and what your feelings are from that.

Peter: Yeah. Wow. That was again, another one of those, the universe speaking because I had this again was just about the time I had lost our dear friend, Bill Norris, who, by the way, we called the dot connector, he had worked at our company FableVision for 22 years and was really my right-hand person helping me every day, do what I do. And so, I was kind of having a down week and I got this email from Scholastic saying, the Obama Foundation had reached out and said, “Could we get permission to use some of your images from The Word Collector?” That was all they said. And I said, “Yeah, sure. That’d be an honor. Don’t know how they’re going to use it.” And then a couple of days later, it was Terry Shay, the founder of Dot Day, he actually sent me a message and said, “Hey, how cool is this? Tomorrow morning, Barack and Michelle Obama are going to be reading The Word Collector live as part of the Chicago Public Library program.”

And I’m thinking what? When is this? And yes, it was the next morning. Paul and I tuned in and we watched, yeah, the president and first lady read The Word Collector. And it was so delightful. They did such a great job. And it was very spirited and animated the way they read it. And I was pinching myself. And of course it went viral. And I think I’ve lost count of how many millions of people have seen that since. But it was lovely. And The Word Collector especially is near and dear to my heart. I love story. I love art, obviously. And I love words and I’ve been a big word collector myself. And I wanted kids not to think of words as vocabulary they have to memorize, but words they can collect and they’re their words and how awesome is it to have two amazing human beings share that story and inspire kids and grown-up kids too, to be word collectors around the world?

Nic: That’s truly amazing. Wow. Where to even take it from there. I think as we kind of started out with, the audience that we’re talking to right now is majority art teachers who probably practice on their own. Can we talk about your process a little bit either, we talked about your painting and your little orphan paints, which I adore that story. But can you talk about the writing and just how you create your art? How does that come to you?

Peter: Well, I guess there are two categories, because there is my illustration when, and it’s purposeful art. I’m trying to tell a story. And I think that’s a different part of my brain than the side of my brain that just makes art. And, if I pick up a pen and I start doodling, it’s just, it’s more my spirit moving me. I’m often surprised what comes out of that, the pen. And I love it. It’s such freedom to do, but illustrating books is it definitely takes a different part of the brain. And what I do is I usually start with an idea or a mission. I’m like, oh, I wish that more people would collect words, let’s just say. Love words.

The mission is okay, I want people to share that joy of words. And then I think, okay, I’m going to create this little movie and I’m going to cast people to be in my movie. And in this case, in the word collector, I cast Jerome and then I make this film in my head and I watch the film in my head. I’m like, okay, that’s a lovely little story. I better jot that down. And I take my sketch notes of my little film in my head. And I just quickly sketch things out. And again, I don’t, it’s very sketchy just to get my ideas down before they disappear, which is always reminding kids, that’s the importance of having that pencil and paper nearby because you’ve got your brain is capable of amazing things. And it’s going to come up with some amazing, amazing ideas. And how sad if you forget your idea so jot them down. I have, if you look in my studio, it just everything’s covered with doodles because my pen is always going to capture the ideas, my thoughts, my stories. And then also just to make art. That makes me happy.

Nic: Paul, do you practice creating for creation or is that part of your career?

Paul: Yeah, it’s what I do every day at FableVision with images, with words, I do a lot of writing, creative writing so I’m doing that all day. I would say probably though, probably one of my favorite places for creation is my garden. And I find the designing and the visioning and the creation and the tending of my garden as nourishing as is that I would put on paper. That’s another place.

Nic: Yeah. And that’s the beauty of creativity. I think sometimes when people think about art, they think about drawing or painting, but creativity is much larger than that. As you had mentioned with your garden. Yeah. All right. Well, we should probably wrap things up a little bit here. I want to give you the opportunity to talk about the future here. And I know that you have a book coming out in September. Can you guys talk to that?

Peter: Sure. Yeah. I almost forget which books are coming out because there, it usually takes from the time it’s all done, it takes somewhere between six months to sometimes a year before the book actually hits the shelf. But this fall, I’ve got a coloring book coming out. Actually coloring book-ish. And it’s called Make Your Mark Gallery: a Coloring Book-ish. And it has 40 frames that I designed and they’re black and white and I encourage kids to add color to the frames, but the interior of the frames, most of them are empty. And so where is the art going to come from? It’s going to come from you, the participant.

And I’ve also thrown in a few squiggles as well, because that was a game that Paul and I used to love playing as kids, the squiggle game. I’d make a squiggle, he’d make a squiggle, we trade squiggles and then you use your imagination to figure out what those squiggles can become. And so that, by the way, those, the pages in the coloring book are perforated so you can tear them out and hang them in your, wherever you live or at school. And you can create your own gallery because I want people to create, create for themselves. And also, when you’re ready, share it with the world.

Nic: That’s beautiful. I’ll probably get my kids one, but I’ll probably buy one for myself as well I think. Yeah, that sounds so interesting.

Peter: Yeah. Well, do you know what? You just hit on something. My work, our work, Paul and I, we both believe that what we’re doing is it’s certainly for kids, but it’s also for grown-up kids too. And, we want adults also to take care of their own creative batteries, recharge them, and be inspired. And we love kids and we want them to navigate their true potential, but we humans, we’re never done. It’s still a long journey, hopefully. Stay healthy and well and live as long as you can because every day is a new opportunity to add to the next page in that blank book you were given at birth. Every day you wake up is another day to make your mark. And so when you graduate from high school, it’s not over. When you graduate from college, not over. When you get your first job, it’s not over. You keep going and just don’t stop. Just keep going and never stop, which is one of Paul and I, that’s one of our favorite phrases, right, Paul?

Paul: Absolutely. And create bravely is another one of our monikers that is really, really important. And I think it captures our mission. And because you could say, “Oh, be creative.” But in some ways, when you say that, especially the older you get, the more you freeze up. Me, be creative? What do I say? What do I write? I teach at the University level at Boston College, undergraduate communications. And I swear, 60% of what I do is emotional therapy to be okay because they’re like, I have no idea what to write about, what to create, what to a video to do. And there’s so much conditioning the older we get to really get so right to be right about it and that we end up freezing up and creativity is definitely not going to flow. As Pete said, I think adults really deeply resonate with his stories because they were wounded in some way along the way. I call them the walking wounded.

You dress up in the right lighting and the right, you exude confidence, but somewhere lurking inside was, yeah, I should have probably, should probably drawn. I should’ve probably written. I should have probably done, pursued those creative pursuits. And so that encouragement, encourage, to put courage in, is really what we hopefully we’re doing with our stories and artwork and connections like this with amazing, amazing educators. We can create stories and images and words, but we need our partners, our creative partners out there who take the stories and the art and hyperlocalize the stories, like Mr. Shay did with his kids.

It turns out that when he hyperlocalized for his kids and made it relevant and he activated the story, he actually did something that in a connected universe truly changed the world in ways. And it’s not us. It’s this connection we have with amazing educators like the ones who are listening today.

Nic: Yeah, well, Peter and Paul, I just, I thank you so much for joining us today. It was an amazing conversation.

Peter: Thank you. Well, lovely to connect the dots with you and also everybody that’s listening. Thank you for all you do to inspire those around you because that ripples out. You inspire those kids, they’re going to inspire their parents and their communities. And the work that you’re doing, I really do believe will change the world. Thank you for what you do and let’s stay connected.

Nic: Okay you guys, did you not get chills from a head to toe when you were listening to those guys? There’s just something about talking about creativity with creatives. I know for myself, everything that they were saying, I was nodding my head up and down saying, “Yep. Uh-huh. I agree. Oh, I never thought of it that way. That’s an amazing idea.” I’m totally going back to my classroom and changing the name of my art studio, which I do call Studio, but it’s just as an art studio. Nope. We need to come up with something a lot more clever. That was a great idea. I can’t wait to hear even more at the conference coming up, July 30th. Guys, if you have not been to a NOW conference, this is the time. This is the time to jump on. I’ve been fortunate to go to every single one, except for one. I presented at every single one except for one.

I definitely know the ins and outs and I am fed by this conference. I go to a lot of PD. I’m a continuous learner. This is one of my favorites by far. I just, I love the short bits. What you’re doing is you’re hearing from people all over the world and you’re getting the best, their best message in 10 minutes. Whatever they can share in 10 minutes, 15 minutes, that’s what you’re getting. And that’s what makes this so exciting and so important. And on top of this, we get to hear more from Peter Reynolds. I hope to see you at the NOW conference, July 30th, just hop over to the Art of Education University website and sign up today.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.