Melissa Henry grew up on the Navajo Reservation without running water or electricity.
She had no TV until one day her father hooked one up to his car battery. Between hookups, he spun stories about felines. His makeshift entertainment center exposed her to “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica.” The family always cared for an abundance of both barn cats and house cats.
The memories coalesced and intertwined. Her imagination soared beneath the canopy of stars that flickered and glowed without the glare of city lights.
“It was the mystery,” Henry said from her School for Advanced Research studio. “There’s something up there and we don’t know what it is. It gave me the opportunity to imagine different worlds out there.”
|If you go
WHAT: Melissa Henry artist talk, reception and open studio WHEN: 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. WednesdayWHERE: School for Advanced Research, 660 Garcia St.
Those interstellar memories melded with observations of her cat Voodoo to produce her upcoming film “Black Cat in Space” during a three-month residency at SAR. Henry will unveil the results Wednesday ï»¿in the facility’s boardroom as a 2013 Eric and Barbara Dobkin Native Artist Fellow.
Henry packed 210 tissue-layered, hand-drawn storyboards into a plastic box as she prepared for the end of her fellowship this month. She plans to put the project on Kickstarter to raise the estimated $25,000 she will need to turn her oil pastel drawings into an animated film.
The story of the good kitty who saves Earth from a planet-devouring feline is rooted in Navajo myth.
“It’s this monster who threatened the Earth, so these twin warriors came and killed him,” she said. “The lava rock at Mount Taylor is the blood of that monster.”
In Henry’s version, Captain Meow and his coyote starship soar across the galaxy to stop the vengeful Hiss, Devourer of Worlds.
She named the captain’s blue robot sidekick CuAl6 , an abbreviated version of the chemical formula for turquoise.
The story takes Captain Meow from his cozy bed into space courtesy of the coyote. He and CuAl6 encounter Hiss, an angry onetime tabby with metal claws taking out his revenge on the galaxy.
During the confrontation, Captain Meow learns the source of Hiss’ rage is visceral. He was abused by a mean human owner, who clipped his claws and docked his tail because he accidentally broke a vase. Then he lost his stripes.
“I became like her —— a monster,” he says.
“It took me a long time to come up with this villain,” Henry said. “He just looked like he was in so much pain. Then it all came together.”
Emotional trauma became a vehicle for compassion.”It could be compared to historical trauma,” she added.
Along the way, Henry sprinkled in snippets of Voodoo’s personality, like his penchant for licking plastic and opening cupboard doors. Sometimes more canine than feline, he likes to ride in the car and sit on the dashboard.
“It was the whole thing of cats liking to explore,” Henry said. “When I was a little girl, the cats would always run off into the forest. I thought maybe one of those cats has a secret hideout and they have a secret group in the universe to watch out for us.”
She began drawing the story with crayons.
“Because I’m dyslexic it works easier,” she explained.
Throughout the animation, she decorated Captain Meow’s room with tiny framed photographs from her short film “Horse You Say.” It took first place in the 2012 PBS online film festival.
“It was all in Navajo and we shot it really cheaply,” she said. “It beat all these other films with high production values.”
It was Henry’s creativity and irony that led to her fellowship, SAR program coordinator Elysia Poon said. “Her voice is really clear and she has such a different way of looking at the world. She’s not a traditional filmmaker.”
“I grew up with animals,” Henry said. “I didn’t have too many people friends because we were out in the boonies.”
She never saw her first films, made when she was about 13 with a home movie camera. Her family lacked the technology to view them. One time she directed her cousins to run ravenous from the hogan and eat dirt and rocks. Her father didn’t appreciate her humor.
Henry earned her master’s degree in comparative literature but somehow managed to concentrate on film classes. After completing her bachelor’s degree at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College, she chose the University of Maryland because it was Muppeteer Jim Henson’s alma mater.
“There’s a statue of Kermit there,” she said.
Henry is already pondering her third film. Its collage nucleus drapes across her studio desk. Two purple- and blue-striped sheep lumber across a colorful Navajo landscape. Henry stitched the paper animals’ legs to their bodies to make them jointed.
“I’m going to do it in animation,” she said, “because it’s really hard to get sheep to do what you want.”