Kayla Mahaffey: Resilience, Vibrancy, and Nostalgia
No doubt, 2020 has been one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory, but the Big Bang created stars, and Chicago-based painter Kayla Mahaffey is a glittering example. Her Deconstructed solo show opened at Thinkspace Projects in May during the height of shelter-in-place and closed just as George Floyd’s murder galvanized a nation, sparking the greatest social justice and activism movement since the 1960s. Her colorful works depicting Black children in the midst of cartoon-like capers and contemplations speak of youth, fantasy and creativity, what she calls, “A guide to bring hope back into our daily lives by cherishing each moment, not in the mindset of an adult, but with the fresh eyes and imagination of a child.” On the precipice of museum group shows and another solo at Thinkspace in 2021, we enjoy glimpses into her youth in Chicago, favorite childhood cartoons, and how cooking stirs the creative juices. —Juxtapoz
Kyle Lilly: Was there any particular childhood moment, person or form of entertainment that served as an influence for your artistic career? How does this show up in your work?
Kayla Mahaffey: While there were things that influenced me along the way into my artistic journey, my mother and animated shows are what I held close to my heart. I've been watching cartoons for as long as I can remember, and I've always loved the process of animation and many of the storylines. I noticed how a deeper story could be told through colorful, drawn characters while keeping its meaning true and not taking away from the message. I implement this in my paintings now, by introducing various characters who move the story along, even if that means helping or hindering the main character. As a kid, most of us see cartoons as the first line in understanding right from wrong, with a few simple life lessons, and this taught me, at a younger age, to keep that morality in mind as I get older.
My mother is one of the most hardworking people I know, and she bounces back from any situation that life throws at her. She influences my career by showing me what determination is and how to make the best out of any situation. She pushes me to reach greater heights and cares for me along the way. In my art, most of the time, the narratives are stories of resilience and the trials and tribulations of life. I think this directly mirrors my life and art career by showing that every path can be an easy one, but how you decide to take on that path, and where you wanna go, will determine the entire journey.
What was the moment when you decided you wanted to seriously pursue being an artist?
When I was a child, my biggest dream was to become an artist, but it was just that—a dream. As children, we want to do many things, but don't have any idea of what it takes to achieve those dreams. So, I wanted to do it, but it was more of a "cool idea" than a serious one. I knew I liked to draw, and if the dream happened… it happened. I didn't start to take it seriously until I was a senior in high school. Everyone was sending off applications for different colleges and universities. I knew this was the next big step into adulthood and I wanted to make it count. By this time, my art technique had improved greatly and I was drawing better than ever (little did I know, I still had a lot to learn), so I felt like I was ready. It was always the big dream to do art for a living, and this was my chance to take a leap of faith and turn this "cool idea" into a reality and take it very seriously. When it was time to fill out applications, I only signed up for art schools because I really was gonna push myself to stick with one career so I could get the most of my art education. When I look back, it probably wasn't the smartest idea, but I had faith it would work out in the end. And even though getting an art degree or going to art school can be a parent’s worst nightmare, my mom supported my decision and stood behind me all the way. Finally, going to college and being around my peers and experienced art teachers only further validated my choice to pursue my career. Even though I didn't finish all four years of college, I wouldn't change the experiences and lessons I took from it. They have helped me further my art career, improve my technical skills, and evaluate my life for the better.
Outside of art, what are some of your hobbies and favorite things to do?
I love to cook and write. Cooking has always been a thing my family practiced to bring everyone together and have a good time. Food is nourishment, and it not only feeds you, but it can nurture the soul. When you're feeling down or stressed out some days, you want to whip up some of your mom's macaroni and cheese or a homemade biscuit, and I cook all the time in order to get better and prepare when those times arise. Cooking is also a way to express myself when I'm not painting, and it's an art form in itself. The plate serves as the canvas, the ingredients are the medium, and the utensils and tools to create it are the brushes. While cooking is somewhat of a necessity, writing brings about an entirely different feeling.
Writing helps me unwind from my artwork. In the past, I would write poetry, but I haven't done it in a while, since painting takes up most of my time. I'm learning how to sit back more and get back to doing something I hold dear. I still continue to write, but usually it's fiction. Like cooking, writing helps me express myself, but it's a bit more relaxing for me than holding a whisk or spoon. Words flow naturally from me and give a feeling of adventure and wonder.
As a fellow nerd, I want to know which characters from anime, comic books or cartoons that you identify with.
Growing up, I loved all things animated, as well as comic books, and that's what's kept me entertained. As a ’90’s kid, cartoons were probably at their peak. Cartoons were honest, hilarious, and almost masterful in their storytelling sequences. Little did we know, we would carry these memories with us to this day. During those times, we had cartoons that showed more realness with feelings, like Hey Arnold! and Doug. While, on the other end, they displayed cartoons with courageous protagonists with superhuman strength like X-Men, Powerpuff Girls, and Sailor Moon. These are just a few of the shows that have not only shaped my style, but showed me a deeper message that stuck with me. Each one showed their best attributes that many children took with them. I just knew that I wanted to be as courageous as Sailor Moon, fierce as Storm (X-Men), optimistic as Arnold (Hey Arnold!), and as smart as Conan (Case Closed). I identify with all of them, their obstacles and emotions portrayed so raw and realistically, and I think that's what made them easy to resonate with.
In what ways does the city of Chicago inspire you and your work?
Growing up in Chicago has always been a big part of my art. Chicago has a soul that is bursting with color and filled with vibrant characters. It's a city full of richness and charm that sometimes goes unnoticed by many. Living on the south side of Chicago can be very difficult as a young Black female, and I like to showcase my feelings through my work. Some people don’t see the everyday hardships and struggles of that life and fail to recognize the opposing beauty such a neighborhood has to offer, so I like my art to act as a window to Chicago and a life that people might not see.
In my art, I want that feeling of resilience, vibrancy, and nostalgia that warms my heart and brings up the good and bad memories. My city inspires me to make paintings that display color and beauty with mysterious, underlying messages. It inspires me to keep going on my artistic journey and represent my city, bringing a voice to all those who live here. It pushes me to do better and elevate my craft.
What advice do you have for younger artists, especially younger Black artists?
For my younger artists and Black artists out there, my advice would be to draw what you truly love. Don't ever let someone make you or your art feel less worthy, and don't panic when things don't seem to be going as planned as an artist.
The first person who should wholeheartedly love your art is you. Of course, there are days where you're not really feeling a painting, but sometimes we have to push through those boundaries and start to uplift ourselves. We have to be free to do what we really want to do, and with that decision comes pride and excellence. You shouldn't have to force your artwork to fit society's standards or their acceptance. At the end of the day, if you want to do this full time, you must appreciate your artwork, its process, and maybe its mishaps. If you don't appreciate it, no one will.
Creative expression is highly important, and don't let anyone dim your light. The gallery world can be very cruel to newcomers, and it's best to navigate that world with your head held high. People might disregard your art or say negative things about it. Now, there is such a thing as constructive criticism, and we all need to take it into account when these statements are meant to be used to better ourselves and our art or when it's meant to be tossed over our shoulder as negativity. Try to keep an optimistic approach to things and don't ever think that your artwork can never grace the presence of some of the most regal of walls. When you don't hear back from galleries about shows or opportunities, don't give up on the process. Take this time to hone in on those skills and improve upon them, make some mistakes, and learn from them. Your artwork will thank you, and, in the end, you will appreciate the process and your new pieces better.
Kayla is part of the New Vanguard III curated by Thinkspace at The Lancaster Museum of Art from September 12, 2020 – Deember 27, 2020