Student Stories

Valeria Contreras

Contreras has always been passionate about telling stories through art, but it wasn’t until recently that she decided to turn this lifelong interest into a business venture. Now, with one self-published book under her belt and another in progress, she’s well on her way to a successful career in arts education.

Since elementary school, Contreras has sketched the same cast of characters. During her final year of high school, after seven years of illustrating, she decided to turn her hobby into her final senior project.

Initially a graduation project, the book garnered an award from her high school and she decided to self-publish. Not long after, her book was a hit with teachers and children and is now being used by being used by teachers in her hometown of El Paso, Texas.

Before entering the College Class of 2015, Contreras spent the summer traveling throughout Texas, reading the book at local schools and selling individual copies at conferences.

“I started the beginning of the idea when I was 11,” she said. “I wanted to come back to the characters and connect with them.” The result was Jamie’s Jungle, a 230-page graphic novel aimed at educating children about environmental issues.

The jungle-themed book populated by friendly animals contains nine episodes, each centered on an important environmental issue, from littering to global warming. But the story doesn’t stop there. The characters confront issues facing young people, like cliques and bullying; and must resolve those problems while saving their natural resources.

Contreras said she drew from her own experience. After a move across town in her childhood, she began sketching comics as she struggled to fit into a new school. She said she knows that comics can help her readers get through tough social situations: “It was something that helped me get through hard times at school, too.”

For her newest book, Contreras moved out of the jungle and into the studio. Inspired by the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP), an artists’ space in Hyde Park, she decided to focus on the importance of art as her theme. “I've always loved art for many reasons, one being that it was a way to impact and educate people,” she said.

“When I was learning about UChicago, I realized that it was unique from other schools because it had a quirkiness that I really responded to,” she said, and her first year in the College didn’t disappoint. “I’ve met the most intelligent and creative people here. I‘ve learned so much, and it really values a core knowledge.”

During her first year, she met with local artists and professors in the College who share her interests. Among her mentors, she said, are Chicago-area cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, AB’89, and Paul Hornschemeier, who taught a class on the graphic novel last year.

Now, as a second-year, she is sketching out a new plan, pursuing a double major in international studies and visual arts. The two courses of study are a perfect blend as she continues to pursue her comic book artistry, she said. “I am interested in how artistic impact may change depending on the observer, as well as trying to find connections between cultural gaps.”

Inspired by the year-long Humanities Core sequence in Media Aesthetics, she now approaches her work from new angles. “It was a great year in the humanities. It made me think differently about images,” she said. “I’ve applied it to comic making and art.”

As she continues with her time at the College, Contreras has no plans to stop drawing comics and producing educational books: “I would love to make comics for the rest of my life.”