If there had been no art classes at Stuyvesant High School, Lucy Liu might never have become the first female Dr. Watson on CBS’s Sherlock Holmes drama, Elementary. She might never have been an actor at all.
It’s more likely she would’ve ended up in finance or securities or some other left-brain, numbers-based profession, she said, given her Chinese immigrant parents emphasized math as the preferred career foundation.
“We didn’t focus on art at home, and it turned out to be key to my development,” Liu said. “Learning about art in school was a massive shift—it changed my life. Without it, I’d probably be doing something very different now.”
Though best known for film and TV roles in Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels and Southland, Liu is also an accomplished painter, photographer, collagist and sculptor who’s been exhibiting her work for more than 20 years. Those creative pursuits and her early exposure to art in public school have led to a rare brand collaboration for the Hollywood star, who’s allied with LifeWTR on a program that will give art supplies to 1 million youngsters.
The fast-growing PepsiCo-owned brand, which launched about a year ago, has baked art into its DNA, featuring images from emerging artists on its packaging and leaning heavily into its tagline, “Inspire the mind, restore the body.” LifeWTR highlighted the underrepresented community of female artists in the “Art by a Woman” campaign last summer, and has now partnered with Scholastic for a year-long project to bring attention to dwindling art offerings in public schools, where 80 percent of U.S. school districts have reported cuts over the past decade.
LifeWTR, with agency R/GA Chicago, has released a short film driving home the point that art should have a place alongside trendy STEM subjects and calling for personal stories (shared with the hashtag #BringArtBackToSchools) about the impact of art education on people’s lives.
The video, which has logged nearly 6 million YouTube views, asks kids and adults about subjects they should study in school for future success, and they predictably list science, tech and engineering. One child says it’s “time to get serious” by first or second grade, so kindergarten (fun) stuff like crayons are abandoned. One teen mentions all the focus on standardized tests and homework. On the flip side, people talk about the freeing, mind-expanding effects of creative endeavors, with a scientist saying, “There’s no progression without art. The world would still be flat.”
R/GA Chicago executive creative director AJ Hassan called the budget cuts to art classes “pretty jarring” and said “purpose-driven brands have the ability to make a real impact on culture, especially for issues that need a megaphone, like this one.”
Liu, shortly after guest teaching a sixth-grade art class and donating supplies at a New York City public school on a recent Friday, spoke to AdFreak about the indispensability of art in a digital-native, tech-heavy world, how she decided to work with a brand, and why her art probably won’t show up on a LifeWTR bottle.
AdFreak: STEM is all the rage, so why put the spotlight on art?
Lucy Liu: Tech has been so important for schools to key into, but it shouldn’t all be about coding and screens. Art is incredibly important—it grows your brain. It helps you communicate and express yourself when you don’t have words. Everyone has a different way of seeing things, and art is an outlet for your ideas, your inspirations and your dreams.
You’re a relative novice to endorsements and commercials, so why did you make this alliance?
I really don’t do advertising, but LifeWTR knows that I work with children [as a Unicef ambassador] and this program is reaching out to children across the country, advocating for art. This is something we need to bring attention to because the cuts in art programs are heartbreaking.
You’ve worked in so many mediums. Will we see your art on LifeWTR bottles?
That’s for people just starting out, and it’s intended to give them a boost, and it’s a wonderful way for LifeWTR to give back. So no, my art probably won’t be on their bottles. It’s on a website so people can see it anytime they want.
EVP Chief Creative Officer, U.S.: Chloe Gottlieb
EVP Chief Creative Officer, U.S.: Taras Wayner
Executive Creative Director: AJ Hassan
Creative Director: Eric King
Creative Director: Sue Kohm
Associate Creative Director, Visual Design: Derek Heinze
Associate Creative Director, Copywriter: Matt Mortimer
Junior Copywriter: Lukas Pearson
Director US Content Production: Diego de la Maza
Executive Content Producer: Chris Ott
Executive Producer: Amanda LaBonar
Producer: Jessie Kunnath
Managing Director Strategy: Kathryn Worthington
Associate Strategy Director: Tyler Moore
Associate Strategy Director, Social: Justin Hancock
Manager, Marketing Sciences: Ricky Weina
VP Managing Director: Jeffrey Brecker
Managing Director, Client Service: Todd Sullivan
Account Director, Client Service: Shaina Holtz
Account Coordinator, Client Service: Mandy Pitera
Senior Manager, Business Affairs: Pam Carden
VP, Managing Director Media: Eli Chapman
Group Media Director: Andrew LaFond
Media Director: Dominique Folacci
Media Supervisor: Maria Zavala
Bid Manager: Alex Anderson
Assistant Media Planner/Buyer: Claire Koen
Assistant Media Planner/Buyer: Nathan Pulcher
Director: Lauren Greenfield
DP: Robert Chappell
EP/Owner: Lisa Mehling
Executive Producer: Michel Waxman
Line Producer: Lynne Pateman
Editorial: Cutters Inc.
Editor: Kathryn Hempel
Assistant Editor: David Rubin
Producer: Heather Richardson
Executive Producer: Craig Duncan
Audio/Mix: Another Country
Sound Designer/Mixer: Peter Erazmus
Audio Assistant: Alex Paguirigan
Executive Producer: Tim Konn
Color & Finish / Flavor
Colorist/Lead Flame: Brian Higgins
Producer: Christina Yiallouris
Client: PepsiCo North American Beverages – LIFEWTR
Chief Marketing Officer: Greg Lyons
VP Marketing Director: Todd Kaplan
Senior Director, Brand Marketing: Alexis Porter
Director, Brand Marketing: Alison Soldano
Associate Manager: Jasmine Richards
Analyst: Brittany McCormack
Acting Head of Production and Creative: Barry Rosen
Direct Focus, Producer Allie Mercurio
Director, Media Strategy & Investment: Katie Haniffy
Manager, Media Strategy & Investment: Lauren DiBara