Mei Tate, a graduating senior at Sprague High School, poses for a photo on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Mei Tate knew exactly what to do with the $100 gift card she won in an art contest her sophomore year at Sprague High School.

With the prize from Cherriots for her illustration promoting World Car-Free Day, Tate bought her first set of acrylic paints. She started sketching early in life, encouraged by her mother, but said she didn’t take art classes until she got to high school.

“It turned from being just like a fun little hobby to something that I could actually convey a message through and I really liked being able to do that,” Tate said.

Now 18, Tate is graduating from Sprague with a portfolio of paintings, drawings and mixed media pieces exploring human psychology, as well as the art department’s annual outstanding senior award.

An untitled piece by Mei Tate, the Sprague High School art department's 2021 outstanding senior (Courtesy/Mei Tate)

Emily Maddy, who teaches painting at Sprague, said the choice was easy for the school’s four art teachers.

“She has always been just incredibly inquisitive, creative and driven when it comes to the arts. I mean, she has never held herself back. And it really shows in the work that she produces,” Maddy said.

Her senior art portfolio draws on the enneagram, a system of understanding the human psyche through nine interconnected personality types.

Tate planned to take advanced art course which required a portfolio, but didn’t have a theme in mind by the end of her junior year.

With her summer less busy because of the pandemic, she signed up for an online neuroscience class through Harvard.

Tate enjoyed previous science courses, but she said the neuroscience class especially grabbed her interest. She was fascinated by “why people perceive things the way they do and how outside influences impact the brain,” she said.

The class gave her the idea for the artwork for her portfolio. Tate created two pieces for each personality type that’s part of the enneagram, one showing the negative side and one the positive.

An untitled piece by Mei Tate, the Sprague High School art department's 2021 outstanding senior (Courtesy/Mei Tate)

Her favorite depicts a woman in a room surrounded by pictures of herself. It’s intended to depict the negative side of sensitive, introspective people who get too overwhelmed by their emotions.

Tate said having no in-person classes for nearly a year helped her focus on her art.

“I actually probably created the most pieces during Covid break, just because I had a lot more time,” she said. “Before that, I would just do school pieces and schoolwork and not actually take time for myself, do something like a project that I enjoyed. It helped me re-get back to the roots of why I paint.”

Tate is heading to Reed College in Portland in the fall and plans to study neuroscience. She’ll continue drawing and painting, but said she doesn’t plan to turn her hobby into a career or side hustle.

“I get too nervous when other people see my work. I like making it for myself,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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