Crammed between the double bed and the bookshelf, facing a window with its view of city rooftops and crows, a red drawing table waits.
In her tiny studio apartment in Portland, Oregon, Molly Mendoza dips her brush in sumi ink and sweeps the kolinsky-hair fibers across the paper. She’ll eventually scan the black pigment into the computer and digitally edit her brushy strokes and opaque shapes, adding subtle washes and punches of color. Her pieces romp across the pages of Nautilus and Bitch, on Adobe’s website and Hazlitt, and in her indie comic for Zainab Akhtar’s ShortBox. Mendoza’s clients revel in her illustrations, their signature cartoon-like forms layered with patterns and textures that verge on the frenetic and the abstract.
“There’s a youthfulness and energy to her work, a freshness and liveliness that are unusual,” says Gail Blumberg, who runs Blumberg Design in Menlo Park, California, and served as art director for some of Mendoza’s Adobe illustrations. “A lot of people rely so heavily on the computer, seduced by how perfect you can get the image that it loses its emotional and tactile, physical-world feel. Molly’s illustrations feel handmade, like a real person did them.” A real person who cares.
“I’m concerned about who I’m doing illustration with—my clients; who my work is serving and how will it impact people; and where it fits into the context of the world right now, and historically here in the United States. There’s a lot going on here, and I want to make sure I’m doing right by the people who are treated unjustly in this world,” says Mendoza, 26, who also works part-time at Portland’s Land Gallery, among several galleries that have exhibited her work.
Mendoza strives to reflect the beauty and strength of women and queer and trans people of color (QT/POC) in her illustrations. “I can’t bring myself to do anything that promotes people who hurt the environment or threaten my rights or the rights of others,” she says. It’s why she especially enjoys working with Kristin Rogers Brown, art director at Portland-based nonprofit organization Bitch Media.
The feeling is mutual for Brown, who was Mendoza’s instructor during her senior year at Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA). Once Mendoza graduated in 2014, “I couldn’t wait to dig in and work with her,” says Brown. “Her fluid mark making has an energy to it that is both graphic and expressive in a way that I really like, and that brings out a visual narrative in every illustration. And it gives her characters agency and power.”
She appreciates Mendoza’s rough and loose thumbnails. “Molly is usually able to determine a metaphor or second story to complement the article fairly quickly,” Brown says. “And she’s the easiest to work with. It’s a dream when you can partner together at the idea stage and get to the crux of the story before the visual work is done. Then, iterating different possibilities for an article is substantial, not just decorative. She’s not just re-creating a moment in the article; she’s telling a story.”
Mendoza, who welcomes candid critiques of her sketches, gladly tosses ideas around with her clients and listens to their advice on new directions. Blumberg keeps turning to her “because I can ask her for something really ambitious, whether I have an idea already or not,” she says. “She may come back with something that wasn’t what I had in my brain, but it always surprises and delights me.” Once Mendoza and her client have settled on the image, she runs with it on her own.
After adding shading and details and finishing as much as she can with her brush, she scans the illustration into Photoshop to add color and line work and delete what feels too crowded.
One of Mendoza’s go-to motifs is that of overlapping visual elements, which lends itself well to nuanced subject matter. “I threw the most difficult projects at Molly because I knew she could do them,” says Anshuman Iddamsetty, a podcast producer in Toronto and former art director at Hazlitt. “She stands out in her ability to layer translucencies of meaning. Even in some of her busiest illustrations, there’s cohesion, and room for the eye to travel—to roam.” And for the heart and gut to feel.
When Iddamsetty hired Mendoza to illustrate an essay written by a woman who survived a sexual attack in Los Angeles, she created a ery-colored image of a naked woman fighting off a tiger. “I wanted to show anger and violence clashing, and I accessed those feelings from my own experience with sexual abuse, as well as my empathy for the author. The story and what happened to her enraged me, and I couldn’t help but unleash that anger upon the piece itself,” says Mendoza. “I made the red mean her anger and crammed the figures into the composition to depict the humid, claustrophobic Los Angeles heat that the author described. I added a lot of detail in the tiger’s face to make it stand out like a violent obstruction.”
“Molly can take the most emotional elements presented in the text and synthesize them into something brand new, serving as the connective tissue that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent to the author or editor. You want to dive deeper into the illustration and, I hope, the words that accompany it,” Iddamsetty says. “That’s charisma, a rare trait in an illustrator.”
Take her image accompanying an article on resisting cancer, for The Scientist. Mendoza wondered, “How else can you draw cancer without it looking like a bad cell or monster?” So she drew the feeing of it, in a mass of stormy reds and blacks looming over a small figure holding a shield. Her newest comic for ShortBox, The Worst, follows swim-team girls through spilled secrets, gossip and fallings-out, trials she remembers all too well from her youth.
“With comics, I go slowly, lingering on a variety of emotions in how I draw the hands and other details. I’m going through the beats,” says Mendoza. “With editorial, it’s quick, bam, one loud beat.” Music helps. “If I hear a song that’s hitting the same emotional notes of the illustration, I’ll put it on repeat and totally get sucked into it, trance-like. It’s rhythmic, making the decisions about the piece,” says Mendoza, who loves R&B, nineties hip-hop, lo-fi and noise music.
She remembers the happiness of making her very first drawing, while in kindergarten, of a turtle leaving footprints in the sand. For Mendoza, growing up in the nineties in Romeoville, Illinois, meant going into Chicago with her family, watching anime, reading manga and playing Final Fantasy video games. All the while, she kept drawing. She started taking art seriously in middle school, making friends by doing their portraits. When her family moved to Surprise, Arizona, her new art teachers saw talent and encouraged her to practice diligently.
After graduating from high school, Mendoza took drawing and photography classes at nearby Estrella Mountain Community College. It was there that photography instructor Peter Bugg introduced her to the art-gallery scene and the idea of going to art school. “For the first time, I felt I wanted to be an artist,” she says.
When she started attending PNCA in the fall of 2011, she aimed for a general fine arts degree. Then she realized that her interest in science, history and current events would pair well with drawing and even make her a living. “I saw illustration as a way for me to reach out and talk to people, as I did while growing up, and amplify their voices. I knew that’s where my heart really was.”
In art school, Mendoza started her first indie comic, Singer’s Cave, with illustrator and life partner Sage Howard—her illustrations, his words—an ongoing underdog fantasy adventure about cave-dwelling spirit creatures. For her senior thesis, she created a 48-page dreamy visual narrative called Voyage, based on the Voyager 1 mission.
The PDF of Voyage, which she sent to magazine editors and art directors after taking a postgraduation month off, grabbed the attention of her first clients, including Nautilus, the New York Times and others that still commission her today. Although she was “scared to death,” Mendoza loved being her own boss. “I didn’t want to confine myself; there was so much I wanted to do. I wanted to make my own mistakes and build my own voice and see where it would all go,” she says.
Now she pushes herself by writing and illustrating a graphic novel she’s already a hundred pages into. In May 2017, she also painted her first mural, for a joint temporary-murals project called Fresh Paint. She was the first of three emerging local artists sought out for this, by Portland’s Regional Arts & Culture Council and Open Signal, a community media center. “It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, but I had fun,” says Mendoza, who likens her colorful urban-neighborhood-themed mural to her editorial illustrations, sans brushstroke texture.
Whether on a wall or a website, or in a book, a magazine or a zine—wherever illustrations appear in the world—Mendoza would like to see more women and QT/POC, and to see them respectfully depicted. “Especially in art director positions, too. It’ll make the industry stronger,” she says. And when it comes to her own work? She envisions doing more murals, comics and editorial projects outside of Portland and the United States. “And I’d love to have a bigger studio.” ca