Like clusters of colorful balloons bobbing with uncontained hope and perseverance, the wide-eyed children thriving in Kayla Mahffey’s portraits strive with a bright determination. She renders them with a vibrant buoyancy that seems to burst off the canvas in bubbles of freedom and adventure. The scenes summon a nostalgia for the innocence of youth, while eliciting a warm protectiveness, inspired by the artist's loving care for her subjects and the craft of painting. In that process, Mahaffey’s vignettes easily inspire our collective responsibility to each other. As a proud Midwesterner, Chicago-born and bred, she’s a radiant reminder of the satisfaction of hard work. With time out for cartoons, of course.
Gwynned Vitello: When I moved to a smaller place and didn’t have as much room for books, I made my children’s books a priority. I love the illustrations, and the messages give me a lot of joy. I feel like you might share that fondness. When did you start drawing? Did you like coloring books growing up?
Kayla Mahaffey: Growing up, I had tons of coloring books. The editions ranged from My Little Pony, Barbie, and the ’90s favorite, Lisa Frank. I think my parents bought them for me as a way to stop me from doodling on the walls! Coloring books not only taught me how to color in the lines, but to have fun with art and use it therapeutically.
I could absolutely imagine you writing and illustrating children’s books? Did you ever consider that?
Yes, I’ve always enjoyed reading books, and while I loved the engaging stories, I couldn’t help but notice the glossy pages adorned with beautiful, detailed illustrations. Each author and illustrator brings something unique, making it all the more interesting. As my admiration for books grew, I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books for a living, and even started creating characters with different ideas and stories. I carried that dream throughout adolescence to my adult life. I still would love one day to release my first one, but all in good time.
I feel like you were raised with a really positive attitude because your paintings are so direct, colorful and animated.
Even though there were some troubling times in my childhood, which is normal for most, I always tried to maintain a positive outlook. My paintings represent that internal warmth and colorful spirit we all contain, but sometimes forget to show. Surrounding myself with positive, supportive people really helped shape my perception on how I saw things in our world. I try to see the good in most people and I feel as though there is always a lesson to be learned in distinct situations. I also like to keep an open mind, which allows me to always walk away, learning something new and understanding things a bit more. When I paint, I try to display that as best as a can, showing visuals of the good and the beautiful around us, while revealing an underlying message or story.
Did you ever consider doing something else? I could definitely imagine you as a teacher.
I still consider becoming a teacher or professor when I get a lot older, but I’ll have to see how things turn out. I love learning from those around me, and in return, I like spreading the knowledge to others curious about a certain subject. It seems cool to send off the next generation prepared and ready to take on anything… that thought always makes my heart melt. Besides being an author and illustrator, I thought when I was in high school that if the “art thing” didn’t work out that I would want to become a historian or a biologist. Some people may think that’s totally left field, but I always enjoyed those subjects, and at a certain time, I was even ready to choose one of those as a major.
It’s pretty obvious that cartoons had a great influence on you. Which were your favorites, and do you still like to watch them?
Cartoons have always been special to me, and I even considered becoming a cartoonist. Later, I saw the work it took to become one, and said I’ll stick to paintings that don’t move. Maybe that’s why I try to add motion into my still concepts. My art definitely has been influenced by many favorite titles, but there are so many, so I’ll just name a few. The older cartoons contained a certain charm and a vintage humor that cartoons that came after could never replicate. My favorites from that generation include Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, and all things Looney Tunes. Shows released during my childhood came with a more modern take on humor, and mostly included a more candy-coated color palette. Those that stand out the most (so many to name!) would have to be SpongeBob, Powerpuff Girls, Sailor Moon, and The Simpsons. From the newer generation it would be Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Steven Universe, but since those have all ended, I usually just stick to anime like Attack on Titan, Demon Slayer, etc.
Art school wasn’t really an optimum experience for you. What was disappointing and what did you take that was positive from those two years?
That was definitely a unique experience. It taught me a lot, but failed to take on subjects that would begin and further my art career. Freshman year, I came in with some prior knowledge of art skills that made learning new lessons a bit easier, and as time went on, my skills with rendering and proportions became more refined. This was extremely beneficial, but as I took more classes, I was not learning anything new; on top of that, I couldn’t find any curriculum about how the art world operates. I learned to educate and market myself about gallery and company expenses and find out what it would take to sustain life as an artist. When I took the leap to leave and put myself out there a bit, it definitely worked out in the best way. I don’t regret the experience whatsoever; it brought new experiences and helped me meet tons of artists and friends I still hang out and work with to this day. The studio classes elevated my technique. The negative aspects really pushed me out of my comfort zone to forge connections, and make stuff happen, and I’m truly thankful.
How has your style and subject matter changed from those days—now that you’re all of 26 years old?
Over the years, my style and subject matter has taken on various forms, but some aspects still remain. The older and newer subjects still share the goal of displaying messages and tales of warning, but I think I have switched to a more positive message of having a bit of freedom as a child and the memories and nostalgia that come with new experiences. My older paintings were an array of age groups, while I now almost only paint children. The style changed tremendously as I started experimenting throughout the years. I used to paint solely in watercolor, which made the piece look a bit more muted and breezy than what we see today. I also painted animals, skulls, nature, you name it, and even had a more Renaissance-type look, but this was when I was in college and searching for my style. The school days of painting still lifes, skulls, plants, and figures really influenced me, but it wasn’t until I combined painting rendered figures and portraits with cartoon drawings I made in illustration classes that I knew I was on to something!
Did you have a mentor? You broke through so quickly—or did it seem quick to you?
I actually never had a mentor throughout my career. During college, when me and my peers started to market ourselves through social media, we’d get contacted by galleries that were interested in showing our work. I participated in many group shows and juried exhibitions, hoping to get a breakthrough, and eventually applied to be a part of a juried show with LineDot Editions. And my artwork, along with other Chicago artists, was chosen. I became familiar with the gallery owners and this led to a solo show the following year—a whopping 30 pieces!. After that, I worked with them and continued showing my work at other galleries in town. I kept my social media art page up-to-date and posted regularly, so I was able to work with various galleries and my work became popular fairly quickly. I have to thank the galleries, social media, my supporters, and myself for that.
Do you portray children from the neighborhood or are you just inspired by your favorite photographs?
While some are inspired by the children in my neighborhood, they don’t necessarily share the same face. Some take on the mannerisms of many I’ve encountered, while other times I want them to display a certain type of emotion. Sometimes the faces reference old family photos, vintage and modern photography; other times I create a completely new face. Occasionally, people swear that I painted them when they were a child (which always gets a chuckle out of me), or a child they once knew. I find it so gratifying that a portrait could take someone back to their childhood.
The portraits of elderly folks show a different kind of appreciation. Whether young or old, how are you able to render such tenderness?
When I painted the elderly, I wanted to share a narrative that was a bit on the somber side. My subject matter was focused on displaying how life can pass you by, about finding your happy place, appreciating life’s little gifts. Many of these figures were inspired from the elders who were around me, their many dark tales of regret, unlearned lessons, and broken promises. My younger subjects are almost the opposite, living more freely, immersed in a society they don’t yet understand.
In these pieces, the color palette is more saturated and the compositions more animated to show the vitality of a child’s mind and energy. The paintings containing the elders feature a more muted palette with stagnant compositions. Their eyes once full of life and spirit now left white as if blinded by their past. The children contrast by possessing bright, clear eyes, which I paint with tons of reflective light. Their demure expressions indicate gentleness, youth, and admiration, so I keep their face in a resting guise or a slight smile.
Tell us how acrylic best suits your style of work. Has that always been your favorite medium?
Acrylic is one of the most versatile mediums; it delivers a saturated punch while being able to be diluted for glazing and smooth blending. Since my artwork is full of color and consists of rendered figures and flat, two-dimensional images, acrylic allows me to go back and forth with ease, flattening and carving out values as needed. The fast drying time makes glazing easy. Once the last layer is dry, you can always glaze on top of that to brighten a section or tone it down. The downside of fast drying is it may make blending difficult. With trial and error, I found out that acrylic mediums don’t really work well for me. I prefer a bit of water mixed into the paint or having a soaked brush, which helps it glide across the panel or canvas with ease and melds the colors. Acrylic keeps the cartoon elements totally flat and vibrant with each pass. It really goes well with what I visualize.
But I do like all mediums and they all bring a certain type of feeling. The first time I truly loved a medium was watercolor, which gave a sense of control—and fun! I loved building the values with layers; the translucent film always gave an airy touch to a piece. I used to hate acrylics, but that’s before I knew what I know today. Oils were very enjoyable, but just like watercolors, the time to actually make the piece took too long because of the oil’s drying time, and made it very hard to keep up with demand. Acrylic is my happy medium for getting opaque colors and vibrancy, while being able to dilute the pigment to create depth.
What’s your method? Do you sketch out figures first, and do you have something definite in mind when you start?
When I come up with an idea, I usually start with a quick sketch or thumbnail to get a good feel. It’s rare that I change the set up once it’s sketched out, but sometimes this happens, I just move the figures around a bit and see how best to keep the composition balanced and visually pleasing. Ideas usually emerge out of the blue, and I will jot the description down in my notes or I’ll draw a quick thumbnail with the elements I want to feature. Color choices happen pretty sporadically at first. Once I get the child figures painted with certain hues, I start filling the background with colors at random. Then I reel the colors back in and try to find a common color scheme to balance out the palette for uniformity, followed by small tweaks here and there by adding more details, like freckles on a child’s face, or the little cloud bubble pieces that appear in almost all of my paintings.
Do you have a routine, and did it change as a result of Covid? What do you need to create your best studio experience?
I have a routine, but Covid didn’t really disrupt it. I work from home and think of myself as more of a homebody; with the pandemic, my daily events barely changed. I wake up, eat breakfast, shower, get groceries once a week, paint, exercise, and repeat. I occasionally go out with friends and family, and that came to a halt; but other than that, they were pretty normal days. When I paint, I always need my two big cups of water for brush cleaning and dilution, some background music (whatever I’m feeling that day) or podcasts, and some tea and/or water to hydrate, along with some granola, nuts, or gummy candy nearby. My needs are pretty simple, especially if the painting is going well.
A mural is a whole other experience, so did you feel any hesitation at first? What was the process like in terms of materials, methods and time?
My first mural was pretty small compared to those I painted later. It was only about 10ft tall and 8ft wide and was done on the side section of a thrift store. Looking back, I was kind of nervous to paint something that size. “What if I don’t finish in time,” or, “What if I run out of paint?” I asked myself tons of questions I would never think about ordinarily. I had to take into consideration supplies and use tools like paint rollers, ladders, and spray paint, which I normally didn’t use. Once started, the process was fairly easy, basically painting a huge painting, and when I got midway done, I saw that I actually brought too much paint, which never happens on bigger mural sites now. After two days of painting and only eight hours of work total, I was proud of what I accomplished in a timely fashion, but I didn’t take into account the physical exhaustion—and the weather. My body ached so badly the next day, I felt like I ran a marathon. I take that knowledge with me on every project now and prepare for the physical undertaking. The weather can be an issue, especially if you’re still painting and rain decides to appear, or the heat is so scorching you end up taking more breaks and drinking water so you end up painting way less, making the mural process more time consuming. For my first, I experienced both. The first day was humid and the sun was blazing and the second day of painting brought out the rain, which made me have to stop and wait till it let up. Nonetheless, a very exciting experience taught me a lot of tips and tricks that I use with the murals I do today.
It’s impossible to separate you from Chicago. Did you grow up in the same home, the same neighborhood? I can tell a real loyalty to the city, especially the South Side.
Chicago is such a special place. While it has its problems, it is and will always be my home. I’ve moved around a few times with my family, and jumped to different neighborhoods, but we always found ourselves on the South Side. From Roseland to Auburn Gresham, to Chatham to a few more neighborhoods that, while still on the South Side, contained their own flair. It’s not necessarily a loyalty, but more of a part of my identity. Everyone's experiences vary dramatically by where they grew up, and Chicago has shaped me and those who live here in a significant way. The nostalgia and cultural significance are instilled into my memories as I grow older. There is a certain type of humility and resilience to the people who grow up here… and of course the food is amazing. It has a spirit that can’t be really described in words, but is experienced in the people who love living here. If I ever moved somewhere else, I would miss those two things the most. I love seeing new things and traveling to new places and, who knows, I don’t know where I’ll end up moving in the future, if I ever do, but Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart.
Kayla Mahaffey’s solo show, Remember the Time, will be on view at Thinkspace Projects in Los Angeles through October 9, 2021