“When it came time to pick a college, I was super torn between biology studies and art,” says Mel Valentine. “I ended up going to community college for two years to prep for a biology degree, but every day when I got home, all I wanted to do was draw.” Valentine, who was born in Miami, attended seven different elementary schools before her family settled down, and so, was prepped to pivot and travel through the States searching for the right institution when she made the choice to study art at Columbia College Chicago. “My first week I attended the Illustration Student Group on campus, and honestly, never looked back. It was so freeing to meet so many incredible people my age making art that was very different from each other’s. I eventually became the president of the club, and it was an incredible experience helping new students feel a sense of community the way I needed to feel when I first came to Columbia.”

Founded by two women in 1890, Columbia is located in South Side Chicago and is known for its industry-canny teachers, a network connecting it to Chicago’s cultural ecosystem. In fact, school President Kwang-Wu Kim, a trained concert pianist and Philosophy undergrad, describes the urban institution as “revenge of the fringe.” For example, comedian and SNL star Aidy Bryant, actress and producer Issa Rae, and now, Who Am I? illustrator Mel Valentine. 

Valentine’s autobiographical piece addresses having to hide her identity, and she is gratified that so many fans related for different reasons. “With Comics, I love the ability to create anything I can possibly think of with zero limitation. I always describe it as making a dream movie with an infinite budget, and where everything I could possibly want exists and is at my disposal. I love being able to tell stories exactly how I want to tell them with characters I know others can connect to.”

We love to shout out places and people happily making art, and Mel’s is a great story. “I feel infinitely lucky to have come to Columbia. The illustration professors are all passionate people who love what they do. The advice and attention I received was out of this world. Chris Elio, Chris Arnold, Cheri Charlton, Jeremy Smith and Ivn Brunetti all helped me become the artist I am today. I also love Chicago so very much; the art scene here is incredible in so many ways, and the comic community here is so rich, diverse and friendly.” An inspiring start for spring! —Gwynned Vitello

This article was originally published in our Spring 2021 Quarterly edition