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University of Illinois-Chicago student Jamaal Crowder is not afraid to admit that he likes watching Disney’s movies. So getting a chance to meet a top animator from the iconic Disney studios was an opportunity of a life time in more ways than one.

It gave the 19-year-old artist and musician a chance to have his sketches critiqued by Ruben Aquino, a supervising animator for Disney Studios. From Meet the Robinsons to The Lion King and Mulan, Aquino has inked several memorable Disney characters, including Eudora and James, Tiana’s parents in the 2009 hit The Princess and the Frog, during his storied 29-year career with the animation studio.

Crowder was eager to hear what Aquino had to say. Crowder, who also plays flute, saxophone and oboe, called his artwork a fusion of Japanese anime and graphic novels.

“He was telling me to work on figure drawing,” Crowder said of the process of drawing real people to capture life-like detail. The process, he explained, “would show how someone should look when I draw them out sideways, and when I am drawing them out forward [and] how I should put the eyes and where the nose should go and things like that.”

Aquino was in town last Saturday at the behest of Chicago West Community Music Center (CWCMC) to speak to youths in the group’s music and drama education program. The event was held at the Garfield Park Field House, 100 N. Central Park.

It included a video presentation of Aquino’s work and ended with him demonstrating how to draw the famed Mickey Mouse. The sketch and a signed lithograph of an adult Simba was raffled off at the end of the program. Aquino drew adult Simba from The Lion King.

His visit aimed to encourage youth to pursue their dreams no matter what artistic form they choose. Whether music, dance or drawing, Aquino said the key to success begins with practice.

“The best way to get good at something is just doing it,” said Aquino, who has animated characters for 20 Disney feature films. He also won an Annie Award for his work on the character Captain Shang from Mulan in 1998.

“You can read all the books you want about playing tennis, but you will never get good at playing tennis until you actually do it. The same with music,” the Los Angeles resident said.

As a child growing up in Okinawa, Japan, Aquino watched Disney cartoons on an old black and white TV. He fell in love with animation and began drawing at an early age. The window panes of his family home became his canvas. Passion, he added, sometimes outweighs talent.

“I’m a big believer in following your dreams and your passions,” said Aquino, who is putting the finishing touches on Disney’s animated film Winnie the Pooh, out this July. “Some of the most successful are the ones who love [their craft]. The more you love something, the more you tend to do it. It is that drive that takes them to the top.”

Darlene Sandifer, the music center’s administrator, was excited to have Aquino speak to the students. His visit coincided with a new multifaceted project the students are developing in conjunction with the Lupe Fiasco Foundation.

In the Little Man Project, students write, draw and use music to tell the story of 14-year-old black boy’s trials of growing up in an inner-city community. The goal is to produce a comic book, a hip-hop opera or animated short through collaborative story telling.

“We wanted students to learn how animation works … so that is one of the reasons why we are so pleased he agreed to come out,” Sandifer said, “and I think everyone got something out of it.”

Aquino’s visit shows that “the sky is the limit” when youth apply themselves, added Ayesha Jaco, director of the Lupe Fiasco Foundation and rapper Lupe Fiasco’s sister.

“We are bringing Disney to the West Side to show young people … they can grow and tell their stories on a large scale as well,” she said.

Justus Pugh, a student at Lenart Regional Gifted Center, got the dreams-can-come-true message Disney’s espouses. The Morgan Park resident contends that “you can make good money and still do what you love to do” when following one’s goals.

Nickolas Mays, 8, who plays the violin, enjoyed the break from music lessons to see the person behind some of his favorite Disney movies. Mays said he enjoyed guessing which movie characters Aquino drew during the video presentation.

“I really liked it,” Mays, of Beverly, said.