Why Lucy Liu Is Helping LifeWTR Bring Art Back to Schools

The actress tells us about her passion project

Photos: Michael Simon

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.

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