Local artist (and Reno News & Review political cartoonist) Erik Holland has been an art teacher at Reno’s EnCompass Academy since the school changed its name from Rainshadow in 2016. After suffering a stroke around that time, Holland returned to EnCompass to teach art to a new generation of students who subscribe to a new generational identity—one he needed explained to him.
“I’ve always taught the generation called Millennials,” Holland said. “I complimented a kid and said, ’You Millennials are pretty sharp,’ and he looked at me funny and said, ’I’m not a Millennial, I’m Generation Z.’ I said, ’That sounds really ominous. So, are you the end of the world or what?’ He said, ’No, we’re the new wave.’”
This gave Holland an idea for this year’s class, a semester-long assignment meant to combine basic artistic skills with exercises in self-expression. His students will create three separate works—a portrait, a greeting card and a political cartoon—and he’ll compile them into a book at the end of the semester. The book is tentatively titled From A 2 Z: What Today’s Teens See.
“I have always been in favor of very simply defined goals,” Holland said. “My thing is I want to teach them how to draw a face, but I also strongly believe in self expression and that there’s no reason why a person who’s 15 can’t make great art.”
For the portrait, students are asked to draw the face of someone whom they admire or has made an impact in their lives. Musicians, actors and public figures are all common, Holland said, but so are more personal subjects.
“There’s a lot of family members,” he said. “There’s a lot of mothers, and there’s one girl who did a painting of her young brother who never became more than a fetus.”
While Holland prefers a structured lesson plan, meaning every student has to at least attempt the assignment, he gives them freedom to choose their own subject matter. The same is true of the political cartoons, which must follow a specific format, or their greeting cards, which the students named “EnCards” after their school. The EnCards also have a more practical use as well.
“I love creating projects that the kids can then sell, and that I sell,” said Holland. “I’m in Oregon [over spring break], and I’m going to sell the EnCards in Oregon. I’m going to stock the shops with them.”
Selling art is another skill he hopes to teach the students in the class, which is aptly named, “How to make art and a little money too.” When the book is completed, Holland plans to make copies of it in the school district’s print shop.
“You’re probably familiar with capitalism,” Holland said.
“You need an idea, you need a means of production, and you need a sales force. We’ve got all three. I’d actually like to take the kids on a field trip to market the book to a place like Sundance Books and … a couple of other places.”
Holland hopes that A 2 Z will help impart a practical appreciation of art in this new generation, one built around clear goals, freedom of expression and the knowledge to maybe turn a little profit. The project, he said, also taught him a few things about relating to his class as well.
“They can make art while the music is on,” said Holland, who revised a 15-year rule against music in his classroom after coming back to teach Gen Z.
“Before then, I was rigid about it, and I love music,” he said. “It may not be generational, but the bottom line is the kids I've been working with since I got back are simply gentler. We have a great time now because I share with them some of my music, and they share with me. I played Iggy Pop for them. … One kid played a song by a Russian composer—classical music. I couldn't believe it.”