Lily Raven Leon | March 2017

Hometown: Inglewood, California

Major: World Arts & Cultures

Minor: Visual and Performing Arts Education

Art Focus: Theater and Visual Arts


Q: How did you discover your interest in the arts and how did you know that it was something that you wanted to pursue professionally, as an artist or as an artist teacher?

A: I come from a very colorful and creative family. My dad is an actor and a self-taught visual artist. As young girl, my dad did drawing lessons with me. My mom came from a big family and wanted my sister and I to participate in all the things she couldn’t as kid. So, she put us in many classes like art and dance. She also encouraged creativity in our home – I remember she would do things like have all the neighborhood kids over to finger paint, or let us play on pots and pans to make music.

Though I grew up with creative parents and going to performing arts schools all my life, society tends to send a message that the arts are dispensable and hobby. Though the arts were integral to my life, I never thought I could pursue a career in arts. Taking the VAPAE teaching sequence, I met a professor Jessica Bianchi who is an art therapist and I remember thinking excitedly, ‘Art therapy is a career?! Why have I never heard of this?!?’ In the course, I was also introduced to a wide range of amazing humans making a difference in the community and the wonderful world of teaching. I fell head over heels in love and knew that being a teaching artist was the combination of the two loves of my life – art and helping people.

Q: Describe what the young artists in your VAPAE afterschool arts program are working on and the process they’re using.

A:  I teach at Aviva, which is a Family and Children’s Service Center for young girls. The young artists in my program are working on a combination of visual arts, digital media arts and narrative story telling. We are using the art space as place where the girls are empowered to tell their stories and representing themselves. We give the young ladies a prompt pertaining to a component of their lives and identities from which they make a visual or physical art piece. They then take that art piece and digitize it in some fashion. Some projects include animated masks, digital comic books and animated superheroes. For the mask project, we reflected on the different masks we wear as humans and wrote different poems about what made us feel powerful. Then the girls actually created their own masks with paint and paper. We then used an app in which we could take a picture of the masks they created and animate the mask. The girls then recorded their poems into these animated masks. In the other projects, the girls are creating comic book stories in which they use themselves as a model to create these animated superheroes who overcome different obstacles. The process of creating something visually or acting it out through theater and then watching your creation come alive in different forms such as digital media has been very rewarding because there is such an intersectionality of many different arts coming together. These projects have also been exciting because digital media is an art form that I had not previously explored.

Q: Why is an enrichment opportunity like this important for those participating? What do they gain?

A: This program is not only important, it is necessary. The art space functions as a safe space where students can express themselves and create new identities for themselves. It is a healing space where the students can reflect on their lives and make something beautiful out of these reflections. The students gain a sense of community with our different rituals that start the day and connection through conversations and the sharing of our creations. The students also gain an opportunity to share their stories. There is a healing component of the simple act of sharing one’s story but there is also power in having one’s story exist in a medium outside one’s own head.

All students need opportunities like this because it is important to our well-being as humans to create and seek beauty. Every experience of beauty is an experience of the divine. Making art is definitely an engagement with beauty and in essence with the divine. All students need beauty in their lives. Addressing this need for beauty is especially important in the particular community I am working with at Aviva and with other student populations who are facing challenging circumstances. The art and the beauty becomes a tactic of survival, of coping, of connecting, of perseverance.

Q: Did you have an opportunity like this when you were a younger artist? If yes, how did it help shape your love of art? If no, in what ways could a program like this have helped you?

A: I was very blessed to have had opportunities like this growing up – I went to all performing arts public schools from elementary to high school. In fact, I have never taken a PE class because I always took dance! (And I would not have it any other way!) In addition, I was able to go to a free visual arts conservatory on Saturday mornings. These enrichment programs shaped my love of art because it allowed me to grow in my art, my creativity and my expression. The presence of these programs in my life made me realize just how much I couldn’t live without art. I also was able to learn so much about love and compassion because the arts teach people more about what it is to be human and to be whole. Learning to be whole is such a necessary skill to teach our young people! With programs like this we teach our students to create and in doing so we teach our kids to combat other forces in this world that destroy.

Q: What has this experience as a teaching artist or arts facilitator taught you about yourself?

A: This particular teaching artist experience has taught me how to be more aware, how to be more prepared to meet needs of different students and the importance of self-care. Working with these different young ladies facing difficult situations I was constantly having to be aware of the social and emotional needs of my girls. I was constantly reflecting on how the art projects would empower them, on my own use of language, on how to create a safe space that both acknowledged life challenges but was not defined by them. I learned how to provide stability and structure through the art lessons. I learned that I can tend to be preoccupied with outcome. I am realizing that I have to trust that the journey and the process of art making itself is powerful. In many ways, I do not have control of what happens. When talking about difficult subjects, I can’t always predict whether the content I present will be empowering or difficult for students. Being a teaching artist in this space, I am recognizing that I don’t have to have all the answers but I do have to be engaged and present to the needs. I am learning how to ask my students what their needs or choices are. In seeing my students’ needs, I am also learning how to identify my own needs. Community work though rewarding, beautiful and necessary, requires a lot of emotional energy. I am learning that in order to give to the fullest in this work and with my students, I must also take care of myself and allow others to give to me.

Q: What do you personally gain as a teaching artist, arts facilitator?

A: I honestly always feel honored that people trust me with something as precious as their children. I feel honored that I get to directly influence change in the world because I get to inspire young people who will one day grow up and take a role in our society. I love to think about what my students will do one day – will they too be teachers, or dancers or politicians or doctors or community activists? Will they solve problems of poverty or hunger or of technology or health or spirituality? I gain the satisfaction of knowing that I am making a difference in the world by connecting with and teaching my students. I gain purpose as a teaching artist. I get to witness the brilliance of my kids and see their growth. I also gain many laughs and great ideas because my students share their lives with me. My students teach me so much! I have learned how to meet many needs, how to adapt to any situation, how to engage people and to have people participate, how to provide structure and understanding. I have learned patience and compassion and how to be an effective communicator. I learn from hearing my students many different perspectives on what I am teaching.

Q: What are the benefits to you as a student/graduate in the UCLA VAPAE program? Was this program a good choice for you? If so, why?

A: To me the benefits are numerous! I get first-hand experience in creating lesson plans and working in the classroom. I am not just learning education theories, the VAPAE program is applied theory and practice! This program has trained me through experience. It has provided opportunities for me to grow as a teacher. I know I can go to any job when I graduate with confidence because I have already been working in the field of teaching and art. This program has actually changed my life because it has introduced me to countless brilliant people who I am honored to work with to bring about education reform, societal reform and arts reform.

Through VAPAE I also have found the career that I wish to follow. I feel blessed to be leaving college with a dream for my life. Most college graduates are scrambling to get any job but I feel, thanks to VAPAE, that I am graduating with a wealth of job possibilities as a teaching artist and more importantly I am doing work that I love and that makes an impact in the world. I cannot believe I can get paid to do such important work as teaching and art. (Though, at the same time teachers and artists should be paid and valued highly for what they contribute to our children and our society!)

Q: Are there any anecdotes from your VAPAE Studio Sessions (or Arts Education Teaching Sequence) that stand out to you? Perhaps you had a break‐through with a student or saw some particularly noticeable growth in that student through this program, collaboration etc. Maybe something surprised you or made you think about art or teaching in a new way.

A: Last quarter, we taught at Aviva and our theme was Tea, Mindfulness & Creating A Sanctuary. The goal of our lessons was to have the girls be able to create art that allowed them to make a space their own and to create a physical sanctuary for themselves. More importantly we wanted the art to be a way of creating a sanctuary within ourselves to carry around when maybe environments we may inhabit are not safe spaces for us. We had two girls who were in that program and we asked them to help us recruit for the program for the new quarter. We simply asked the girls to tell the new girls what they had done, learned or liked about the program. We were blown away by the girls’ responses. First, these girls had matured incredibly! You could see the leadership and the confidence that had grown in them as they presented. Second, the statements they made about the program moved me almost to tears. They bragged that the art space was a space where they could be themselves, where they could escape from the problems of their environment, where they were free, where they could express themselves, etc, etc. They went on about how valuable the space and the community we had created was to them. Hearing them was so validating because it meant that the program was successful! Everything that we were hoping the girls were taking away from the lessons was resonating with them. The art space is truly a place of hope for these girls.

Q: What are your short-term and long‐term career goals?

A: My short-term career goals include teaching abroad for a year in Colombia (where my family is from) and then returning to the States to get my masters in Art Therapy and in Education/Arts Education. I am going to be an art therapist and a teacher. In the long term, I desire to be fighting and advocating for various social justices causes via the arts. I would love to continue working with incarcerated youth. My dream is to establish community centers for marginalized youth, be it foster care or incarcerated youth or other youth facing challenging situations, in which youth are able to be cared for by the community. In these centers, the community would have a vested role in the lives of these youth by contributing their strengths in service of the youth. So, artists would come in and offer programs dance, art, singing, theater, music, etc. Doctors would come in and offer health care services, lawyers legal services, teachers would offer help academically, etc. etc. These community centers would also be working to solve different social issues.