Jennifer Harlow is pictured at animator Chuck Jones' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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A lifelong affinity for drawing, a keen eye for quirky characters and years of hard work landed one young Rogue Valley artist her dream job.

Former Medford resident Jennifer Harlow, 23, is now one of the youngest cartoonists at award-winning DreamWorks Animation studios in California.

"This is a story of a local girl with a huge dream, who made it come true," said Harlow's mother, Joyce Graham.

Harlow, hired in January, is now one of the cadre of artists who created the "Shrek" series, "Madagascar," "Bee Movie," "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon."

"I get to do what I love and get paid for it," Harlow said in a telephone interview. "It's pretty amazing."

From earliest childhood, Harlow can't really remember a time when she wasn't drawing.

"I've always drawn," she said. "The story goes I once took some red crayon to the living room carpet. Mom said she learned after that to always keep paper in front of me."

Graham remembers taking a 5-year-old Harlow to a screening of "The Lion King."

"She pointed up at the screen and said, 'I'm going to draw that,' " said Graham. "I thought she just meant she wanted to draw a lion."

But while Harlow always had art, life outside the pages of her beloved sketchbooks was not always so easy for an introverted, artistic young girl.

"I left high school at 15," Harlow said. "I didn't fit in. I never really felt comfortable."

Graham, an instructor at Rogue Community College, said the decision to allow Harlow to finish high school through courses at RCC was difficult. But the right one, she said.

"She just didn't fit it," Graham said. "She was teased and very, very unhappy."

At RCC Harlow began her formal art instruction.

"She'd never had any real training," Graham said.

Harlow continued taking classes at Southern Oregon University, building her portfolio. She applied for acceptance at California Institute of the Arts, and was denied admittance — the first time.

Harlow turned CalArts' initial rejection into an opportunity for improvement. What skills did she need to work on? Harlow asked.

"They told me I needed more experience in observational drawing," Harlow said.

So Harlow spent months sketching the denizens of the Rogue Valley Mall Food Court, said Graham.

"It wasn't necessarily pretty," said Graham.

It wasn't supposed to be, said Harlow. She filled two sketchbooks as she worked on her "eye" — her ability to depict weight, movement and character. Harlow captured people picking their teeth, stuffing their faces and toting tired tots over their shoulders like sacks of potatoes.

The practice paid off.

"I remember the day I was accepted to CalArts," Harlow said. "It was unbelievable. The mail came late. There was a big package with a big congratulation letter. I ran inside and began calling every family member and all my friends."

Graham said her daughter's commitment remained unwavering. Even if the adults sometimes had their doubts.

"I once said to her, 'Don't you think you should get a degree in business?' " Graham said. "But she found her passion."

Creating short animated films each year was part of Harlow's class requirements at CalArts. Her third-year project depicts a crabby and crab-like robot's efforts to recapture his errant battery, which has slithered away on an icy landscape. "Bothered Bot" can be viewed on YouTube.

From concept to completion, creating the computer-generated flick "took a lot of computer tricks and hard work," Harlow said.

"It was kind of like working with a puppet," she said. "I called him 'Crabby.' And the concept was that he was a grumpy little thing out of his element."

Before graduating from CalArts in December, Harlow worked this past summer at Pixar Animation Studios as an intern. The experience was "very intense," she said.

"It was animation boot camp," Harlow said, adding she worked on characters from the "Toy Story" series.

After accepting the position at DreamWorks, Harlow recently moved from Valencia to Glendale. She's already found new characters to sketch at a bus stop she calls the "Twilight Zone." In her blog "Sketchy Observations," Harlow captures a recent traveler.

"Half a mustache and a very glittery vest underneath a grungy trench coat. Yep," reads the caption under the man's image.

When not drawing her neighbors, Harlow can be found at the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, sketching dinosaur skeletons.

Harlow is already hard at work on a new movie due out in 2013. Currently titled "Croods," the animated film "is about a little family" and features a creative spin on evolution, Harlow said.

"I'm one of the first on board," she said. "I'm keeping my eye very open and observant."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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