It’s Oct. 18, and senior Alyssa Jolitz sits at her computer drawing her self-portrait. She’s recently started a project where she sketches a new one every day; she hopes it will help improve her art. This was one of the first, but she was already seeing progress; the facial structure was becoming more defined, the colors were coming closer to real life.
Her mom Margaret Jolitz had been out of the house all day with her boyfriend. Alyssa didn’t know where; she didn’t really think about it. She keeps drawing as they enter the house. Alyssa’s mom calls for her to come downstairs. She saves her work in Photoshop and changes out of her pajamas.
“One sec!” Alyssa calls downstairs.
She walks down the stairs. She sees her mom. Her mom’s eyes are puffy. Alyssa can tell she’s been crying. Her older sister Kelsey has also been called into the room.
“Your dad died,” Margaret says.
Margaret hugs Alyssa and Kelsey tightly. Alyssa goes numb. No. Everyone else is crying, but Alyssa is trying to piece together what her mom has just said. No No No. Her father Charles Jolitz had been through back problems, hip problems, drug problems, but Alyssa didn’t think she would lose him. Not her best friend. Not now. Not so soon.
For Alyssa, drawing is an escape. When things make her upset or sad, she draws. She can control her art, can control the surroundings and actions of the characters in her art. Her lines are precise, and her colors and shading are laboriously and perfectly complete. The art is hers, and it swings with her mood. Life is in Alyssa’s control when she is drawing on her tablet, and that’s the way she wants it to be.
Alyssa had doodled as a child, but her art career started when she was 8. She had seen a Wacom Tablet, which is a pad that transfers drawings to the computer, at Micro Center on a trip with her dad Charles Jolitz. She wanted it. She wasn’t even sure why, but she just wanted it. One day, her dad came home with it.
She began to fall in love with drawing. By the time she was 11, she started to recreate anime cartoons. She made up her own full-length comics with characters in the same style she had seen. She liked to make up back-stories for the characters she created.
Art was a way for her to express herself. She is “incredibly shy” by her own account; in this interview she preferred to write down her answer to most questions. Her sister Kelsey, who was 14 months older and, in childhood, inseparable from Alyssa, often spoke for her.
Her doodles often created discussion without her having to speak. One of her favorite art moments came while she was doodling on loose pieces of paper at a seafood restaurant with her family. Kansas City weatherman Bryan Busby walked up to her and picked up a few of her drawings. He raved about her art, told her how good she was, how she really was going to be something someday. She remembered that feeling of impressing someone. It felt good.
Margaret remembers another moment at the Prairie Art Show that revealed a lot about Alyssa’s skills.
“The parents said ‘Well, that’s not artwork. That’s just stuff that’s printed out.’” Margaret said. “The kids said ‘No, you don’t understand. Alyssa draws that.’”
Under the name “Neko Sama,” Alyssa started uploading art at 2draw.net, an online art community. She received a lot of positive support there, too. With new fans, Alyssa was encouraged to produce a lot of art; she wore down the nib of her hard plastic tablet pen quickly.
As she grew up, the type of art she drew changed with what was happening in her life. She fell in love with the movie The Lion King around the time she entered middle school. The flow and beauty of the images hooked her in. She watched it at least 50 times.
“During that time that’s probably when I started considering animation to be a career instead of being just a ‘drawer,’” Alyssa said.
She knew the names of the animators; professionals such as Glen Keane and Preston Blair inspired her. People that didn’t know her would tease her, call her “Simba Girl” at school. She didn’t care. They didn’t understand.
She moved to Deviantart.com, another online art community, and began her Lion King recreations under the name “SnowTigerCub.” She would draw the same character, but in her own style—called “fan art.” She began getting more views and positive comments than usual, and that encouraged her to draw even more.
“The people whom I show my artwork to, either online or off, are very supportive,” Alyssa said. “All the friends I have made from my various galleries are always willing to help me out if I need anything, even if it’s not art-related.”
Moving through middle school, Alyssa spent a lot of time drawing, watching cartoons, or playing video games. She was shy, and enjoyed time alone. She played a lot of video games. She especially loved video games where the characters looked like cartoons.
These games often translated into art she would upload. She would sit down in front of the T.V., pull the game out of the Nintendo 64, and draw the frame that froze in front of her—whatever it was when she pulled the game out, in full detail.
When Alyssa was 13, her mom brought her to the Kansas City TeenStar. She did illustrations to accompany the articles. She was invited in middle school, the only middle schooler on the high school staff. She was too shy to hardly ever say anything. She just drew what they asked her to.
But Alyssa wanted somewhere where she could control what type of art she did. Online, the fans begged for more recreations of other people’s art, and for the TeenStar, she had little control.
She wanted to be able to choose what her characters looked like, what the scenario was, where they were, everything. It was her art, and she wanted to be shaped by her influences—not the influences of what people wanted. She was tired of mimicking the professionals. Alyssa was willing to potentially lose her fans that loved her renditions more than her original work.
Since October of 2007, Alyssa has been known as “dodgyrommer,” an artist with a style that describes as a mix of ‘30s and ‘40s cartoons with a little of the ‘90s cartoons she grew up with.
It isn’t as popular as the fan art, but Alyssa doesn’t mind. The new style is hers, and she had control of it when she had control over little else.
When Alyssa was 11, she joined Alateen, a group that helps teens deal with having a family member or friend that has a drinking problem. Her dad was an alcoholic. He would hide it from her, and he would try and cover it up. She knew anyways.
Alyssa also fell back on art in the process of her parents’ divorce. She would shut herself in her room and try to drown out their fighting by drawing. It gave her something to do while she waited for the fights to stop. She would draw comics about her having to deal with the fights and her dad’s alcoholism.
Alyssa’s mom remembers that lots of different things came together at once and pushed Alyssa to draw to get away from it.
“I think there was so much going on at that time…her sister was at an age where she was going her own way and they were separating from each other,” Margaret said. “For so long, they were the same person.”
In the drawings, she transformed her parents into cats. She drew herself as a kitten, one that didn’t understand the problem but was always trying to build up the courage to intervene. The fights confused her. The drawings helped. It also gave her a chance to escape to her room.
Counselors tried to provide help. They gave her prescriptions for antidepressants, but she did not take them regularly. She didn’t like people trying to control her emotions. Again, she preferred to control them on her own.
“I was on antidepressants for about a year or so and usually lied about taking them,” Alyssa said. “Usually I would throw them away because I didn’t like the way they made me feel.”
Her father’s health had always been a reoccurring issue. When she was 5, he had his first back surgery. Then another, and another, and another—five total. Then neck surgery. When she was 9, he had to have both hips replaced. They often dislocated.
She didn’t understand the seriousness of her dad’s condition until she was 9, and then it worried her. Charles had been diagnosed with a severe muscle and bone degeneration disease. He lost the muscles in his calves, then his left forearm and hand.
After Charles moved to an apartment after the divorce, he was rarely in the same place for more than a year. He would move to an apartment, and then to a nursing home. The nursing home made Alyssa depressed. In 2005, he moved back into the basement of the Jolitz house. The family would take care of him, and he would rarely leave the house.
After about a year and a half back at home, he moved in to live with his parents in Arizona. This was tough for Alyssa, but she was able to remain in contact with him through MySpace and AIM.
“I miss you so very much,” Charles sent in one message. “Never were a child and father more closely bonded than you and I. I love you.”
Her drawings were often affected by the same troubles she was trying to avoid; she started her more serious cartoon work around this time, just like her father she missed in Arizona had encouraged her to do.
It’s Oct. 4. Alyssa and Kelsey had come to visit her father at his apartment. They had been moving to a new home in Roeland Park, so they hadn’t had time to visit before.
They talk for a while. It’s been more than a year since he has lived in Kansas City. Alyssa and Kelsey eventually need to go. Charles tells Alyssa to listen to the French singer Jacques Brel. She has already done that the last time he asked. Alyssa remembers Brel’s famous song, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Don’t Leave Me.
She nods. She goes to where he is sitting and gives him a hug. He looks her in the eyes.
“I love you sweetie,” Charles says.
“I love you too, dad,” Alyssa says as she walks to the door. “See you later.”
She shuts the door behind her and walks to the car.
Two weeks later, she would be choosing the urn to keep his ashes in.
Jolitz now has a variety of platforms to showcase her art. She is a part of the Broadmoor 3D design program. She does freelance work. She’ll do anything, but she likes to do it in her own style:
Alyssa is beginning to receive recognition for her work. She was awarded 1st, 2nd and 3rd place last year by the Journalism Educators of Metropolitan Kansas City for her illustrations for the Harbinger. An online animation called “The Cookie Thief” won her a grand award in an online competition. The trophy sits next to her computer. She likes the feeling of impressing people, just like she always has.
Her eventful year has changed her future plans. Besides her father’s passing, an ex-boyfriend and friend of Alyssa also recently passed away. When she was little, she had always wanted to get a Character Animation degree at the California Institute of the Arts, one of the leading animation programs in the world.
Now she thinks she might take a year off and just settle down her life. Or two years.
She’s trying to find a job in town where she can hone her art. She visited an animation studio Bazillion Pictures down by the Crossroads, and she has applied to be a caricature artist at Worlds of Fun. She hopes one of them works out.
Looking into the future, Alyssa hopes the world around her will settle down so that she can look to go to college and pursue a full-time animation job. She relies on her new friends she has made at Broadmoor in the last two years for artistic and moral support. Kelsey and Margaret are always there for Alyssa, too.
But for now, as she tries to get through another “hell week”–she is still recovering from the death of her friend–she is content to slip up to her room, turn on her tablet, and draw whatever happens to enter her mind.
It’s Oct. 20, and Alyssa and Kelsey are at the funeral home, signing a sheet to confirm the cremation of their father.
It was only two days ago Margaret had found Charles at his apartment, lying with a pillow under his legs on his bed. When Kelsey dropped him off at his apartment from the hospital on the 14th, it was the last time anyone had seen him alive.
The girls chose his urn and necklaces for some of the ashes to be placed in. Through choking sobs, Alyssa asks the funeral director if she could hold her dad’s hand one more time before he was cremated.
The funeral director discourages her from doing it, but says it is an option.
That night, she will turn on her tablet, flip on the monitor, and begin the portrait of Charles Jolitz, her father, her best friend. She would decline to see him again.
Alyssa’s art is in her control, and she permanently memorialized her father the only way she knew how.