Years after settling in Los Angeles as a teaching artist, Erica Larsen-Dockray has never grown tired of visiting her hometown of Scottsbluff, Nebraska each summer.
The trips are a chance for the former Husker student and staff member to get away from the city, enjoy the open space of the Midwest and spend time with family. They also took on a whole new purpose in 2013 when Larsen-Dockray’s sister, Monique, came to her with an idea.
“She said, ‘Hey, when you come back, maybe you could run an animation workshop’ — specifically because her son, Diego, was really into animation,” Larsen-Dockray said. “We put a call out on Facebook, and we got around 12 kids and sort of piecemealed together a bunch of tech from my sister-in-law and brother’s business.
“At that point I was like, ‘This is kind of amazing.’ There’s something here where I’m able to offer connection with these kids and give them the same instruction that I’m giving kids in L.A., kind of leveling that playing field.”
Wanting to host more workshops than she could teach herself, Larsen-Dockray began bringing in additional teaching artists from the California Institute of the Arts, and the Calibraska Arts Initiative was born. Seven years and hundreds of participants later, the classes are now a staple in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Lincoln for students interested in learning animation.
“Seeing them connect with those opportunities and learn about working in the animation industry is just so fulfilling, and it warms my heart to see that — because that was me as a kid, always gobbling up anything that was related to being an artist,” Larsen-Dockray said.
“There are some kids who I’ve been working with for years now. Some of them have been there since the beginning when they were nine or 10, and now they’re 16. They’re friends with each other, and they have this connection outside of school where they’ve found a little bit of their tribe.”
Calibraska participants have the opportunity to learn from the best of the best in the animation industry, including artists working at Cartoon Network and Disney. The program also serves as something of a cultural exchange between the two states.
“Everybody who comes back just raves about how much fun they had with Calibraska and how cool Nebraska is,” Larsen-Dockray said. “Having an artist actually come out and not only teach, but then also meet people that are from the area, get tours of things that are happening and engage with the locals really inspires them in other ways.”
Due to COVID-19 concerns, this summer’s Calibraska classes will be held virtually. Along with animation, there are courses on comedy, filmmaking, dance and more for both children and adults.
“Gradually expanding Calibraska offerings into other art fields has always been a direction I wanted to take,” Larsen-Dockray said. “Last year, we added film classes to the lineup, and we were already set to add comedy and costume design before COVID-19. Going online this summer has helped us add classes faster and easier, and it’s been so exciting to see all the fun kids are having in the classes already.”
While the transition to remote instruction has been a challenge, Larsen-Dockray — who also serves as a member of Nebraska’s Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts advisory council — said the pandemic has led her to think more about how she can better support students in rural areas.
“I grew up at least 15 miles away from anything, so I get that driving to and from neighboring towns can be a lot,” Larsen-Dockray said. “I just want to make it as easy as possible for everybody to access this content and connect with these teaching artists. Going online has been really helpful in that regard, and it’s pushed the program into that arena much sooner than I had planned.”
Scholarships are available for those interested in participating in courses this summer. For more information, visit the Calibraska Arts Initiative website.