A talent for telling stories through art

  • Monday, May 20, 2019
    Martha Opiyo - class of 2019

    @PlasticBottru's 5,900+ Instagram followers will be pleased to know the talent behind the online comic strip, “Oh, My Intern,” graduates from college this spring. 

    So will the family of Martha Opiyo, who left Kenya four years ago to pursue a college education in America. 

    Opiyo channeled an affinity for drawing -- nurtured as a child watching instructional YouTube videos -- into a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. 

    “I have had a wonderful experience at UMES,” Opiyo said. “I have learned so much about what it takes to be a serious artist.” 

    Including the importance of marketing. On social media. 

    On a lark, she entered an online competition a year ago sponsored by Webtoons, “a global digital comics service platform” that “offers … over 200 online comics for free” each day. 

    Opiyo didn't win, but she discovered the benefits of sharing her Manja-inspired sketches of characters and storytelling through an online comic strip that drew on her imagination about the travails an intern might face in an office setting. 

    “I did it as an experiment,” she said.  “I wanted to see if people like what I like, and learn how to interact” with an audience. 

    Opiyo conjured an off-beat pseudonym inspired by “plastic bottle” and set about creating a series of intern-adventure installments, some of which featured as many as 50 panels.  The influence of Japanese comic book characters with their distinctive eyes is immediately evident in her work. 

    She left Nairobi to swim competitively for a small, private college in Kentucky, but it wasn't the right fit academically.

    A self-portrait inspired Opiyo character

    After her freshman year, Opiyo's aunt, Grace Namwamba, a UMES faculty member, encouraged her to consider transferring to the university because it offers an applied design degree with a specialty in sequential arts.  Or as chief instructor Brad Hudson likes to call it, the unique art of storytelling through drawing and dialogue. 

    When she met Hudson, Opiyo didn't know what to make of him. 

    “I thought that he might be really strict,” she said, describing her first-impression memory of deep-set eyes and a low-key personality. 

    Opiyo soon found she could make a connection with Hudson, who over the past several years has emerged as a nationally recognized sequential artist in his own right. 

    “Mr. Hudson has been a real inspiration,” she said. “I've learned so much.” 

    “It's one thing to talk about art,” Opiyo said, “but learning the business aspect of art is something I had never thought about.” 

    Which is why the Richard A. Henson Honors Program student decided to take it upon herself to start cultivating an audience through sharing her talents online. 

    “Instagram is how people (who do art) make their money,” she said. 

    The terms of holding a student visa, however, preclude Opiyo from engaging in commerce through sales her work. 

    UMES honors program seniors produce a “capstone” project associated with their major and present it to faculty members if they want the prized credential included in their official academic transcript.  Opiyo converted favorite characters - with their distinctive eyes - that she featured in her entrepreneurial online comic strip into a magazine-style portfolio. 

    The challenge she confronted at presentation time was “How do I explain an art book?” It all worked out, she said. 

    Opiyo paid about $25 out of pocket to have just five portfolios printed, which should make them a collector's item if those who have seen them are any indication. 

    She's hopeful her talent as a black woman will contribute to a broadening of the perspective of sequential arts consumers. 

    The toughest part about studying art at UMES? 

    “Oil painting,” Opiyo said with a laugh.  “I had to learn to stand at an easel and create something. I was so used to drawing at a desk.” 


    Martha Opiyo was named the top student in the School of Education, Social Sciences and the Arts at UMES' 2019 spring honors convocation.