WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
Bold hues of orange, blue, red, and yellow sweep through McKenzie Ware’s coveted sketchbook, filling hundreds of worn pages with original and creative characters like Oliver who happens to be part crocodile and part cow.
To be exact, McKenzie, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Palmetto Elementary School, has designed 217 Anime-inspired characters that pop off the pages and compete to share their wildly funny and detailed backstories – backgrounds she has written for every single one of them.
“I look around my room for inspiration, and I might see a lamp and think about a character that has a fear of lamps and bright lights,” said McKenzie, who hopes to draw and write for an animated series like Littlest Pet Shop one day. “This character might walk into a surprise party filled with lamps and run away screaming. I love sarcastic humor. It’s a stress reliever for me.”
With a fan following spanning from her school community to her YouTube channel, McKenzie – an eloquent and confident speaker who totes her sketchbook everywhere she goes – has catapulted into a local artistic sensation. She’s sold six original characters to peers and has a long and winding waiting list of friends eager to have her draw themselves as unique characters.
“People are always asking, ‘Draw me! Draw me! Will you draw me next?’” explained McKenzie with pride dripping from her words and blue eyes smiling.
Before sunrise each morning, she climbs out of bed to squeeze in some drawing time before the school bell rings. With her markers, colored pencils, Sharpies, and gel pens lined up at her drafting table like tiny locksmiths ready to release her imagination, Ware begins to sketch while listening to bands like Panic at the Disco.
Like a life-size crayon box, a kaleidoscope of vivid colors engulfs her room where you’ll find original characters Zap, Tik, and Dorkie smiling back at you. Every inch of wall space is papered with either her art or fan art. In fact, Ware has dedicated an entire wall to her designs that have been recreated by admirers.
“McKenzie has influenced other students to draw,” said Donna Williams, McKenzie’s language arts teacher. “At least two other students now take their sketchbooks and artwork everywhere – out to lunch, recess. They want everyone to see. A lot of personality comes through in McKenzie’s artwork. It’s like an anchor for her.”
When McKenzie isn’t focused on assignments, participating with the school news, or rehearsing for a play, she’s drawing. On car rides, at recess, during her after-school program at the Boys and Girls Club, she’s dipping into her swirling imagination and creating.
“She’s very bright – flies through everything,” said Williams, who is one of McKenzie’s biggest fans. “But then she’s so focused and inspired by her artwork. She can relate it to school and it comes out in her writing.”
The power of creating – and being good at it – has carved out a rooted sense of identity for McKenzie, which she shares has fueled her self-esteem. At previous schools, she felt lost in the shadows and bullied.
“Honestly, I feel like a super star here,” she said, absolutely beaming and looking around the halls as if soaking up her beloved environment. “I feel here I am more cared about and no one bullies me any more. They treat me better. They call me ‘famous’ and think my art is cool and not weird.”
McKenzie’s past experiences often influence her art. Red Scar – a bullied cat – got in a fight and now wears an eye patch. Scars are etched into her fur, much like her symbolic scars, she said.
While she loves school now, McKenzie impatiently checks the clock as it ticks closer to dismissal. The bell means The Boys and Girls Club after school program where she links up with best friend and fellow artist Shazely Szigetvairi.
Like professional TV show collaborators, the girls flip open their sketchbooks and weave together stories and characters that have been parading across their minds at school all day. They are currently working on a YouTube movie project based on their lives at school and post projects onto the channel idrawbad.
“Ever since the second week of school we’ve been best friends,” said McKenzie, who loves to share she got 17 sketchbooks for Christmas. “I was so happy when I met her. We both draw animals and watch Anime and cartoons. We pass the sketchbook back and forth and collaborate.”
Emerging at the age of eight, McKenzie’s passion for drawing blossomed after tuning into The Littlest Pet Shop series. She worked feverishly to re-create this art style and has only grown since then. On a recent day, Ware nonchalantly pulls out her sketchbook to demonstrate (on the fly) how she draws eyes.
With a brow furrowed in concentration and lips pursed, she glides her sharpened pencil quick and effortlessly in sketchy, but deliberate motions. An eye that looks straight out of an animated series seems to develop out of thin air. Then she moves on to more “edgy” ways to draw eyes and eagerly flips through her past drawings to highlight examples.
Her father, Andy Luff, proudly supports his daughter’s artistic endeavors, loving that her room is filled with all her creations.
“She’s really excited to be featured as an artist,” he said. “She loves to draw and is really good at it.” In addition, McKenzie Ware’s stepmom (also an artist) helped craft one of her characters into a Halloween costume last year. “We used a big box and a green T-shirt and jeans,” Ware said. “I was really proud of how it turned out.”
Moving onto Manatee School for the Arts next year, McKenzie has eyes set on attending Ringling College of Art and Design in the future. She gleans inspiration from the book series Warrior Cats and strives to one day write and illustrate her own books and animate original TV shows.
“I love writing, science, and history,” smiled McKenzie, who boasts an extensive Pokémon card collection and a love for mashed potatoes. “Give me a big book about the Civil War, and I’ll read it in like a week.”
Closing up her sketchbook and tucking it into her backpack, she looked out the school office window and caught a glimpse of best friend Shazely walking by with her class. A smile lit up her face and she stretched her neck higher to sneak a better look.
“That’s Shazely, and I get to see her later,” said McKenzie. “I love art because I like to create. I also like that it bonds me with friendship.”