Artist and animator Melody Mendez shows off her sketchbook in the McKay High School photography room. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This profile is part of a series on Class of 2019 high school graduates. Salem Reporter asked high schools in Salem and Keizer to select an outstanding graduate – someone who accomplished something significant, whether through art, academics, advocacy or overcoming obstacles to graduate.

Melody Mendez started drawing because she wanted to follow in her older sister’s footsteps.

At five, she was copying anime-style drawings of “Sailor Moon” from her sister. By the middle of elementary school, she’d progressed to drawing more realistic faces.

In middle school, she made small comics she copied and stapled together, passing them out to friends.

“If I couldn’t draw, I don’t know what I would do,” she said.

Now, the soft-spoken, pink-haired McKay High School graduate is heading in the fall to the Pacific Northwest College of Art, a small school in Portland.  

The McKay art teachers selected her as their outstanding senior of the year, an award that comes with a new iPad and iPencil, funded by a local donor, to help Mendez pursue her art and animation career.

“When there’s a kid that’s really into art and excited about art, we kind of whisper about them,” said Douglas Dorman, McKay’s digital photography teacher. Mendez, who made an impression on the department when she began taking art classes as a sophomore, was at the top of everyone’s list, he said.

“She works really hard,” he said. “All she does is draw.”

Mendez goes by “Melo,” a nickname she likes because it rhymes with her favorite color, yellow. Her sketchbook is mostly in pen because she’s trying to work on her speed as an artist, so she doesn’t want to spend time erasing.

Painting is rarer because she doesn’t have the supplies she’d need at home, she said.

Her humility is apparent after a brief conversation. When she found out she won the art department award, she cried – and teared up again during an interview when asked what it meant to her.

“It’s surprising to me that people think I deserve something like that,” she said.

But her voice becomes animated when talking about her projects.

She’s spent much of high school working on a web comic called “No Where Here,” set in a fictional world she’s created where humans exist alongside three tribes of humanoid beings.

The story follows a girl who’s spent most of her life confined and having experiments performed on her, before she disappears and ends up some where she doesn’t recognize. It’s an ongoing series she’s writing and posting, and though most of her fans are people who know her personally, some have found her work through the site.

Mendez’s art style and the world she’s building are evolving – she toyed with creating her own language for a while before realizing the amount of work involved – but it’s a process that’s kept her engaged and excited.

Melody Mendez displays sketches for her webcomic, No Where Here (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Creating her own stories has always been a refuge, she said.

“They made me happy because it’s like, ‘Oh, I created this whole world,’” she said.

As she’s learned more about art, Mendez has evolved from anime-style drawings to a style more inspired by Disney animation. She never took to digital photography, though she appreciated Dorman as a teacher. His classes gave her better insight into digital production and animation.

“She taught herself animation and graphic design,” Dorman said.

That spurred an interest in Salem-Keizer’s video game design and animation program at the Career and Technical Education Center. Mendez took classes there this year and worked on an animation of a rocket ship for a short public service announcement about not texting while driving.

Her work included concept sketches for the ship, character movements and facial expressions. Then, working in Adobe software and Lightwave, she digitized those sketches and animated them in 3D.

 “It was really fast,” she said of the project.

Mendez lives with her mother, who she said is supportive of her going to art school, though the idea took some adjustment since it’s more expensive than other college options.

She earned a scholarship to cover about two years of the program and will see what she’s able to afford after that, she said.

Some day, Mendez said she’d like to work for Disney as an animator. Her favorite film from the studio is Big Hero Six, a 2014 sci-fi and action feature about a teenage robotics prodigy and his companion robot.

Dorman said he’s excited to see such a promising student pursuing art beyond high school.

“They’re going to take her as far as she wants to go. She’s got the work ethic,” he said.

Other graduates

McKay senior graduating on time despite starting senior year with half the credits needed

Blanchet grad heading to selective Florence Academy of Art hopes to make career of oil painting

South Salem grad will spend summer studying cancer drug delivery before heading to Yale

After nearly dropping out, West Salem grad earns full ride to WOU

Aspiring engineer Beatriz Perez graduating from Teen Parent Program

Friends since elementary school, North Salem grads enlist in Marine Corps together

Sprague graduate helped lead school choir through challenging year

McNary graduate's advocacy led to changes in Oregon mandatory reporting

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

JOIN US: FACEBOOK and TWITTER.

SUBSCRIBE AND DRIVE LOCAL REPORTING -- For $10 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.