Exploring the Importance of Art in Education: A Discussion with Animator Lisa LaBracio

While art undoubtedly plays an important role in the human experience, its value is hotly contested and is nebulous at best. Because the value of art is something that cannot truly be quantified, it is up to every individual to evaluate the importance of art in their own lives. Lisa LaBracio, an Animation Director at TED-Ed (the educational initiative of TED Conferences), has a unique relationship with creating and sharing art that allows her to have a distinct perspective on the importance of art. Aside from her role at TED-Ed, Lisa has also spent time working on content for non-profits, and teaches animation storytelling workshops to people of all ages in a variety of settings. In her discussion with us, Lisa gives insight on her own journey with art.

Words: Tracey Flores

  Image: Lisa LaBracio (left) at one of the TED-Ed Weekend events / Dian Lofton

Image: Lisa LaBracio (left) at one of the TED-Ed Weekend events / Dian Lofton

There are many forms of artistic expression. What drew you to animation?

I started telling my parents that I wanted to be an animator from around age 9 or 10, I think right around the time that I'd understood that 'animator' was a job. I loved watching classic Disney movies from a young age, and I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes on TV that showed the animators drawing the characters. That little TV special evoked some strong emotions – first, devastation at understanding that Ariel was not a real mermaid in the sea – but then excitement at realising that such a cool job existed.

What do you hope to achieve via your own artistic ventures? 

This has evolved over the years. I looked for an animation program in college that focused on traditional (hand-drawn) animation, because I was so sure I wanted to work for feature film production, like what I had grown up watching. Quickly, though, as I began to understand the industry and the production of an animated film, I learned that the part that I was most drawn to (and perhaps most suited for) was the creative problem solving that comes with telling an animated story, and then the realization of that story as an entire film. Basically, were I to work at a large studio on a large production, I'd likely be focused on one small piece of the puzzle, rather than having ownership over a production as a whole.

How did you begin your career in the industry?

My first internship (then job) in animation was with the independent animator and filmmaker, Bill Plympton, whose entire career was self-made and who, at the time, was one of the only animators who made a living off of making his own films. Working with him and a very small team for around 5 years gave me exposure to the entire production process and also to the world of independent animation and animation festivals, which had a massive influence on how I aligned myself with the industry and also how I understood animation as a storytelling device.

How would you summarise that driving force behind your work: what keeps you going in your chosen field now?

I'm drawn to short-form animation, and the ability of the medium to tell stories without words and with characters that are universal and relatable to a variety of people. When I began to think in this way, I realised that animation can help dissolve inherent barriers and biases in an audience, which makes it a suitable medium for documentary and educational storytelling. As an animator and a director, my primary endeavor is to continue to use animation to share stories that are otherwise unheard, to demystify concepts that are otherwise difficult to understand. And to also promote animation as both a form of fine art and an excellent communication and educational device for audiences of all ages.

"There is much that we humans still struggle to explain and to communicate. I believe that the act of making art is an exploration, an attempt to get into these spaces, to understand ourselves more thoroughly."

  Image: TEDYouth2015 / Ryan Lash

Image: TEDYouth2015 / Ryan Lash

Much of your artistic endeavors have ties to education. Why do you believe art is important in the educational setting?

So, in addition to creating educational animation, I also teach animation storytelling to young people in a variety of settings, so my response to this is twofold. As I'd mentioned, I think animation is an effective device for explaining tough-to-grasp concepts while also keeping the attention of a viewer and providing memorable visuals to enhance retention. In a classroom or workshop setting, though, I think animation has even more potential as an educational tool. Firstly, animation is FUN to make and definitely magical, especially for a first-timer. Regardless of what age I am teaching, every participant I've ever taught animation gets excited to see their drawings move or some objects under a camera come to life. Thanks to smartphones and recent apps, animation has become more accessible and much more instantly gratifying, so folks can see the results of their work fairly quickly – which has opened up a lot of teaching opportunities with the art form.

As an animator and a director, my primary endeavor is to continue to use animation to share stories that are otherwise unheard, to demystify concepts that are otherwise difficult to understand.”

  Image: Animation workshop in Kosovo / Ferdi Limani

Image: Animation workshop in Kosovo / Ferdi Limani

Animation is unique in that it both mimics real life and relies heavily on an understanding of the physical world, but it is also entirely limitless in what can be made – which is where the magic comes in. I've trained many classroom teachers in basic animation making, and I am astounded by the number of uses they've applied it to – teaching physics, language, history, geography, and, of course, art and storytelling. The process of making animation is highly collaborative and requires a lot of creative problem solving, so it's certainly appealing in a classroom setting. And, of course, it introduces new technology into any lesson. Finally, I think it's important to teach all people, but especially young people, storytelling skills and a variety of methods for sharing their own stories.

  Image: Animation workshop in Kosovo / Ferdi Limani

Image: Animation workshop in Kosovo / Ferdi Limani

In your experience, how does one’s experience with art differs when consuming versus creating?

This is a great question. We spend a lot of time online these days and consuming content, so as a consumer, I do think it's valuable to offer entertaining educational content and content that sparks curiosity and promotes further learning. The internet is filled with a lot of junk food, so I think of TED-Ed Animations (and the work of our contemporaries!) as healthy snacks. That said, we are inundated with content that is being crafted to hold our attention or to get likes or shares for innumerable causes – some good, some not so good. When I teach young people how to make animated stories, I like to spend some time with them looking at other work and deconstructing how it was made, the creative decisions behind it, the visual languages that were employed, etc. Essentially, understanding how to craft your own story or film helps you understand how the stories we're being told every day are crafted – and this media literacy is invaluable in navigating our world today.

"Animation is unique in that it both mimics real life and relies heavily on an understanding of the physical world, but it is also entirely limitless in what can be made – which is where the magic comes in."

  Image: Lisa working on an animated poem for TED-Ed / Jeremiah Dickey

Image: Lisa working on an animated poem for TED-Ed / Jeremiah Dickey

Having utilised your art skills when working with populations in distress, how do you believe that art - particularly animation - is important when working with such populations?

This is a tough one, because I continue to ask myself this question. I've taught animation to young people at home and abroad, at homeless shelters, halfway houses, orphanages, and even a refugee camp on the border of Somalia. Ultimately, I think all of the assets I've mentioned thus far apply just the same, but with an added emphasis on the storytelling aspects of animation. In these workshops, I rarely focus on animation techniques, but more on using animation as a tool for sharing a part of yourself. When kids write their own stories, there are often personal truths in them, and I do believe that processing those truths can be therapeutic if they are met with the proper support and structure. I also have observed that the mere act of asking youth what they think or what they want to say is in and of itself meaningful to them, since they are rarely offered the microphone – especially in environments as these.

What are your favourite aspects of teaching animation and running the workshops for youth?

In general, my favorite part of teaching animation to youth is the limitlessness of the medium. Kids everywhere are constantly being told 'no', regardless of their environment. The kids I've worked with in shelters and refugee camps have even less control over their lives and very little certainty or stability. I love that as their teacher, I get to say 'yes' to truly every idea they present me. You want a dragon to fly to Mars? An exploding rainbow? Basically any super power? Yes, definitely, yes! Animators definitely have a sort of a god complex, and this complete and utter control over a world that you build yourself is extraordinarily satisfying. In one of the shelters I worked in, we were making monster puppets and then animating them dance for Halloween. One of the kids asked me if they could make their monster a home to live in, so we all worked on designing and building all of the monsters homes – most of their homes were not decked out with pools or amenities – just with bedrooms quite like the ones the kids remembered from their own home before they were moved to the shelter. We ended up making a monster neighborhood and then taking the monsters trick-or-treating to each other's houses for Halloween. What started as a small idea became an entire world.

Sometimes, it's far less loaded than all that, though. Sometimes, it's just fun and marvelously distracting to make art and to play together, and I've learned from them that this is equally as valuable.

Why do you believe art is important to the world at large?

Oh, a zillion reasons that I probably can't articulate well, so I'll quote Magritte, who said, “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” I don't consider myself a spiritual person, but there is much that we humans still struggle to explain and to communicate. I do believe that the act of making art is an exploration, an attempt to get into these spaces, to understand ourselves more thoroughly, and to offer that experience back to the world in hopes that another may find their own path to exploration as well.