Surrounding Black children with jumbled masses of cartoon characters, doodles, and explosions of color, Chicago-based artist Kayla Mahaffey (previously) imagines adolescent daydreams and an array of playtime inventions. She infuses her acrylic paintings with a longing for carefree summer days, mornings spent watching the foibles of favorite animated characters, and hours left open for adventure, capturing feelings of joy and curiosity.Evoking Childhood Nostalgia, Color and Cartoon Commotion Burst from Kayla Mahaffey’s Paintings / Colossal
Artist Jon Burgerman, whose latest body of work ‘Fuzzy Faces’ is currently on view until October 9th, was recently interviewed by the BBC in a piece that explores the creative power of our innate human desire to doodle.
“Doodling can allow thoughts and daydreams to slip through from our subconscious into our hand through the pen, which can surprise us and reveal stuff about us to ourselves”
“And doodling really celebrates the process. It doesn’t matter so much what the end result is. A lot of doodles are messy and loose and shambolic and that’s okay, because the process of creating it is perhaps more important than the outcome.”– Jon Burgerman
Read the full article, ‘From Da Vinci to Churchill: What our doodles can mean‘ over on the BBC website here.
Inside the studio of Roose van der Vliet while she prepares for her exhibition ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ showing at Thinkspace Projects from September 18, 2021 – October 9, 2021
‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ features an entirely new collection of the hyperrealistic depictions of hair she is known for, there is a piercing energy at the heart of each piece. While the concepts of this solo exhibition are familiar for the artist – hair, piercing eyes, golden hour light – the intention behind the works has changed. Rather than focusing on differences, ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ highlights the similarities between us, emphasizing that we are all more alike than we often care to admit.
Video by Birdman
Thinkspace Projects is excited to present Roos van der Vliet’s latest solo show, ‘Mirrors of Your Soul.’ Featuring an entirely new collection of the hyper realistic depictions of hair she is known for, there is a piercing energy at the heart of each piece.
The body of work is the result of the recent pandemic, a return to portraits at a time of extreme isolation. Van der Vliet begins each painting with the eyes, bringing the subject to life from that first moment, a magnetic vitality that is immediately evident to viewers. While the concepts of this solo exhibition are familiar for the artist–hair, piercing eyes, golden hour light–the intention behind the works has changed. Rather than focusing on differences, ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ highlights the similarities between us, emphasizing that we are all more alike than we often care to admit.
In anticipation of ‘Mirrors of Your Soul’ our interview with Roos van der Vliet discusses her journey back to drawing, a deeper look into her creative process, and her dreamy garden with full of fruits and vegetables.
For those who are unfamiliar with your work, can you share a little about your background and how you came to know about Thinkspace?
Of course. I’m from the Netherlands, was born in Dordrecht, famous for the light that inspired many artists like William Turner.
My art career has been a bumpy road. I’ve been drawing all my life and becoming an artist seemed like the only option for me ever since I learned the word. After being rejected to art school for illustration at 17yrs old, I was heartbroken. I decided to do a gap year and work on my portfolio. When I discovered that illustrating would maybe not be enough, that I needed more freedom as a future artist, I applied for fine art the next year and got in. I started painting and stuck with it. I became pregnant at age 20 and gave birth in 2006 to a boy while attending art school, so I’m a mom too. I painted with my son in my lap, dragging him to art school where he was cuddled and admired by the students and teachers. I graduated about 10 years ago and have been painting ever since. It’s been a bumpy road, but I’m super grateful to where it led me.
I’ve known Thinkspace for a long time. It all started when I did a show in the Netherlands next to a work by Kyung Yup Kwon, who then had a solo at Thinkspace coming up. I admired her work so much and showing at this gallery seemed like miles away for me at the time. I had no idea things would go this fast! I still have to pinch myself sometimes.
I moved to my forever home last year with my love, my son and my cats. It’s a small old farm with a huge garden with an orchard and a big vegetable garden. When I was a kid I fantasized about being a witch (I actually told myself that I had been one in a previous life, burned on the pyre of course). Not a witch from old fairytales, but a wise woman, grey-haired, growing medicinal plants, herbs, and mushrooms, knowing exactly what to use for what illness. I’m now given the chance to become that, to learn with my hands in the soil. I really hope I can live here for a very long time. The lady that owned the house before me was born here and lived here for 90 years…
I’m currently building my studio out of straw and clay in the garden, it’s quite a project and I hope to finish it next summer.
What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? And were there any specific themes or techniques you were exploring?
My inspiration basically came from the pandemic, and the strong urge to feel a connection with the paintings I was working on. I painted portraits before of course, but this time it felt like I NEEDED them. They became like imaginary friends to me in a time that I hardly saw anyone. I was having whole conversations with them while painting. This must sound like melodrama but that’s what isolation made me realize, that I might think of myself as being an introvert but that I’m actually not the hermit I always considered myself to be. What a relief!
Regarding themes and techniques, a while back I became interested in the divine feminine, deities from all over the world. I listened to a lot of podcasts and read books about this theme and became fascinated by the symbolism behind every deity, the part she represents that’s within us all, not just in women. The paintings all represent a different deity that I felt particularly inspired by during the time I made the painting. The technique has always been to paint as realistically as I can. In a way, this is how I try to understand life, by observing it from up close.
What is your most favorite part of the creative process? Least favorite part of the creative process?
My favorite part is the part where the canvas is blank when I only made a sketch, and the final result is still a promise, a fantasy. When I don’t actually know if the painting is going to be good, but I can feel it in my gut that it will. I love it when I know that this process needs time and all I can do is create, there’s no need for impatience, the painting takes the time it needs.
The part that I least enjoy is the part where I have to finish it, accept it the way it is because it’s never truly ‘done’. I could go on forever. And, maybe this sounds strange, I don’t like the part of showing it for the first time, which is on social media most of the time. It’s not that I’m afraid of negative feedback or whatsoever, I’m okay with that, it’s more like I just gave birth and have to leave my baby to strangers. But the funny thing is, as soon as I start working on a new piece, I don’t feel that anymore with the previous painting. It’s like I keep replacing babies, only loving the newborn. Wow, this sounds so bad, hahaha.
What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition, and why?
That must be Medusa, and I think it shows why. All the different shades of black in the background, the lack of light in the braids, the piercing eyes that I wanted to be looking right through you… All of this made it the most difficult piece I created in a long time. It was one of the first I started working on for the show, and the last one I finished. It’s one of my favorites from the series though, maybe because of all the energy that went into it and how rewarding it felt when I finally stood back and saw that I accomplished what I was going for. There’s no need to put up a mask for Medusa, she looks right at you and knows your true you. I don’t feel judged by her though, she doesn’t scare me. That’s the sad part about the myth, she wasn’t always like this, she is actually a sad brokenhearted lady, a beautiful and sweet one, trapped in her own myth. So, the painting is not meant to be scary, it’s meant to bewitch you in a way, makes you feel seen on a deeper level than a fellow human could.
How do you go about sourcing models for your works? Do you know the look you’re searching for ahead of time, or do the models inspire the pieces?
I pick my models intuitively, sometimes because I have a particular idea that fits the model but in most cases, the models inspire the work. I don’t know exactly what makes me gravitate towards a certain person. Some women I work with are friends already (like the girl with the bug on her forehead) or a model might be my sister (like the model in the purple painting ‘Eyesis’), sometimes I meet them during a night out, or even on the streets. And sometimes I paint myself (like the painting ‘Ave’ which is a self-portrait). Or, what happened in this series, I saw the LA artist Rachel Silva on Instagram posting a picture of herself and I knew she’d be perfect for a painting I had in mind.
Does your work encompass a lot of symbolism? What is the insect that sometimes appears on a person’s forehead? Does the free-flowing hair mean something different than the braids?
The firebug on the forehead is a wink to the Indian heritage of the model, meant to look like a living bhindi, the dot that women in India wear on their foreheads. I chose a firebug because it looks like a third eye in the form of a living being, the shadow it leaves on her forehead is the dot that symbolizes the center of the universe, like the center of a mandala.
Whether I chose braids or free-flowing hair depends on whether I want the viewer’s full attention, or give more space for a dreamier atmosphere. The purple painting for example was an attempt to create a purple world of luscious hair in which you almost have to dig in to get to see the girl underneath, like she’s hiding yet still a little visible, in her safe space. The free-flowing hair allows me to improvise more. I’m not looking at a picture when I paint hair like this, it just develops on its own. This gives me more freedom and painting like this is like meditating.
Can you tell us what is planted in your garden, and what is one of your favorite things to make from its bounty?
My favorite subject! I only live at this place for less than a year so everything I planted I’m seeing growth for the first time. The previous house owners left us with a garden full of vegetables. In April rhubarb was the first thing to be picked from the garden. It’s not my favorite vegetable but it’s great when processed in chutneys and jams. Around May/June we could literally pick kilos of strawberry every day. This was the best surprise of the year. I made dozens of pots of jam which I shared with all my family and friends. I discovered a new berry that was already in the garden, the tayberry, a cross-breeding between a blackberry and a raspberry. Super delicious! We own a little greenhouse that produces too many tomatoes to be eaten (is that even possible?) and I’m looking forward to the fall when we can harvest some big pumpkins that we planted a few months ago.
Right now, the trees in the orchard are heavy with pears and apples, and I’ve already baked a few typically Dutch apple pies that are delicious and that make the house smell so wonderful. Cooking, in general, makes me incredibly happy, but baking cakes and pies have been lifesavers. Whenever I feel depressed, I just start baking something. Success guaranteed.
The drawing you created for our friends at SpokeArt for their Moleskin show was your first true drawing in 15 years – have you continued to draw since rediscovering that part of your artistic voice? Did you consciously know that the rejection you had experienced from applying to illustration school was the reason for walking away from drawing?
Yeah, that was quite an important moment in my career, picking up the pencils again. I had no idea that I quit drawing because of that rejection. That’s something I remembered as soon as I started working on this piece for Spoke. I even said in interviews before that I never draw because I’m terrible at it, and believed it to be true. I started drawing again because I sometimes miss the spontaneity and easiness of drawing. Making a painting requires so much. A lot of time, the perfect lighting, all the art supplies, a great idea… I thought that it would be good to learn something ‘new’. So, I bought pencils and started. I literally burst into tears after half an hour of drawing, because I saw myself doing something that felt so natural because it once was! Then the memories came back to being rejected, how that felt, and how I just gave up drawing and switched to painting and that was that.
Over the past few months, all my time has gone into painting for my show. But I’ll be giving myself some time off from painting, and I’m definitely planning on making some drawings in the garden under the sun.
What is a piece of advice you would give someone currently experiencing the sting of rejection?
There are two different worlds you have to deal with as an artist, the inner and the outer world. The inner world is where creativity comes from, where you can find the innate need to create, but also the joy, the self-criticism, the discipline, the courage to walk your path. This inner world is an endless ocean of inspiration that’s just there, ready for you to dive into. The outer world is the public, the galleries, art school, but also your parents and friends, basically everyone with or without an opinion, social media, and so on. You need the outer world to be able to make a living and not only that, a lot of interesting, fun, and inspiring stuff happens in the outer world that can definitely help you forward in your career. But be aware that the outer world and the inner world don’t get mixed up. When you’re being rejected, that doesn’t have to change anything in this vast ocean of creativity. That’s yours and it’s beautiful and eternal. It’s always been there. That’s something I didn’t know when I was 17.
What are the musical artists or songs that you’ve had on repeat lately?
Oh, this is such a hard one for me because there’s so much I listen to, and in a way it feels very personal to share. I’m addicted to Spotify, have many different playlists I made over the years that keep growing and growing. Music is there wherever I go and it highly influences my work. Depending on my mood I switch between many different genres. But while making the paintings for this show I had Nils Frahm – Fundamental Values on repeat, Kevin Wrenn – Unwoven, and Rey&Kjavik’s remix of Earth by Mogli. I listened to Wardruna, Dead can dance, everything by Tool but especially Pneuma, from their latest album. This song resonates with me so much. And all of that was mixed with some psytrance, Indian mantras, African beats and singer-songwriter. So don’t try to put me in a box!
You’re throwing a dinner party! Who would be on the guest list (it can be anyone, dead or alive)? What’s on the menu? And what is your icebreaker question?
I’d love to invite mother Mary, William Blake, James Maynard Keenan, Ram Dass, Vija Celmins, Plato and the goddess Kali to the table. My icebreaker question would be ‘Plato, would you please tell that story about the cave?’ And that would be the start of an evening full of enlightenment.
ROOS VAN DER VLIET
Mirrors of Your Soul
Saturday, September 18 from 6PM- 10PM
Masks and Social Distancing Required
Thinkspace Projects is honored to present Kayla Mahaffey’s latest solo show, ‘Remember the Time.’ Mahaffey examines the language of nostalgia in this collection of large-scale new works on canvas.
Summer days, children playing, neighborly love, peace…quiet. Nostalgia creates a shroud of positivity, coating childhood memories and glossing over the rougher moments. Although past chaos and hate have always been present, there is a shared recollection of peaceful times. Mahaffey examines this cyclical phenomenon in ‘Remember the Time,’ acknowledging that though we are in the midst of a difficult time, heavily influenced by generations before, there is value in the sugar-coated nostalgia as well.
In anticipation of ‘Remember the Time’ our interview with Kayla Mahaffey touches upon the wisdom her mother has passed down, lessons learned at art school, and one of her favorite items to create in the kitchen.
What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? And were there any specific themes or techniques you were exploring
In this new body of work, my inspiration came from the summer and spring days that I experienced as a child. My color palette came from the clear blue skies, sunsets, flower fields, and butterflies. I wanted each painting to gives off a sense of warmth and playfulness, while still holding on to that childhood nostalgia. Some specific themes I took on were the memories of picking flowers, catching fireflies under the night sky, and enjoying my time at the playground with my friends…that’s just to name a few. I wanted the collective narrative to be about is trying to take a moment to remember times where we felt the safest and the happiest.
What piece was most challenging and why?
The most challenging piece was hands down, “Head In the Clouds.” There was so many colors to mix and so many details to paint, that made it a daunting task. I had to distinguish each element from the next so I wouldn’t mix up the values or color and I used various techniques throughout the painting. So I was constantly switching back and forth from fine lining, spray paint, airbrush, etc. Even though it may have been the most challenging, it was definitely the most rewarding.
Are you particular about your materials? What’s currently in your artist’s toolbox?
I’m not really particular about certain materials like brushes and pencils, but I’m a bit more specific about my paint. My artist toolbox consists of a plastic water cup, mechanical pencils, pink pearl erasers, an array of synthetic brushes, about 3 palette knives of various sizes, painter’s tape, and numerous acrylic paints. I usually stick with Golden and Liquitex brands for the acrylics. They supply the best coverage and smoothness which goes well with my painting style. I switch between liquid acrylics and heavy body acrylic…both possessing different qualities that help with opaqueness and detailing.
In art school, your teachers encouraged you to start over with your works. To learn from the mistakes you were making instead of pushing through with something you were not ultimately satisfied with – how often do you find yourself in a place of starting over on a piece of work?
Actually in art school, I think I’ve never started a piece over. My teachers usually trusted my process, even though some ideas had a few drawbacks, I always told them that I would make it work and deliver. I would rather work through an idea and push myself through it than start from scratch. It might be a fault of mine, but I can’t really remember a time, I started completely over. Change a thing here and there…absolutely, but gesso over a piece or throw it away…I could never! When I have an idea, I have to put it on paper. I have to get it out of my system, no matter how kooky it sounds. Even if the viewer despises it, as long as I like it, I’m happy.
We totally understand the need to get something out of oneself, just to have it exist in the world, and very much support the spirit of as long as you like it, then you’re happy. Think we misinterpreted your sentiment from a previous interview where you talked about mistakes and starting over, from 15:20 – 16:07 in this WGN interview you shared a lesson you gained in art school and we wanted to better understand how this lesson has continued to present itself or influence your process now.
Yeah, in the WGN interview, I was talking more about the thought process of the pieces and how in school some of my instructors didn’t want me getting stuck on one concept. We would have to turn in thumbnails or ideas of what we wanted to create and in return, they would give us the go if they thought the idea worked well. If they didn’t, they would offer critics here and there, to see if the changes would work for the better. If they still didn’t feel like it got the message across, they would want us to come up with a whole new idea! This lesson changed me and my art process, in return. I would think of my best idea and give them that only one, but they wanted me to be more dynamic and push myself a bit more, so they wanted something different. This would end with me going back to the drawing board and get the creative juices flowing by getting inspired or letting some ideas simmer for a bit. I would come back with fresher concepts and a better understanding of how organization and compositions work. Now I’m a bit more thoughtful with my narratives when it comes to painting and I try to do my best to edit as much as I can to make the compositions flow more smoothly. It was a process that irked me when I attended school, but it made me a better artist in the end.
Can you share with us a powerful moment of starting over in your own life?
That moment came when I had made the scary decision to pursue art full time. I was working overnight, ten hours a day, and four days a week. I was tired of balancing working and art every day and it was starting to take a toll on me. Essentially if I quit, I would have nothing to fall back on, because at the time I wasn’t producing and selling enough art to pay the bills. The last few months of working at my job, I painted for hours, half sleep on the floor, and made enough paintings to fill a gallery. I also was working on my social media presence, so I eventually got an opportunity to have a solo exhibition. I was ready to take a leap of faith and I quit my job. I believed in myself and I knew that everything would be just fine. Literally two days of being jobless, I was informed that the solo exhibition would not happen. My world came crashing down and My soul was crushed. But a few tears later and a talk with my family, I was in a better place. I had to pick up the pieces and start anew. I made some calls to my peers and a few galleries got back to me. After a few weeks, I officially had my first solo show.
You’ve discussed the morality of cartoons in previous interviews, how they are sources of some of our first lessons on right and wrong. Do you have a favorite cartoon or children’s show that reflects a sense of morality you’d wish to see more of from humanity?
There were many cartoons, which contained lessons that we as people should take note of. But it would be a crime if I didn’t talk about the 90s masterpiece, “Hey Arnold”. “Hey Arnold” taught us to stand up for what we believe in and it displayed what true friendship and family could look like. It had a sense of community bonding as well with lessons of gratitude and being fearless that were something I didn’t see on television at the time. It’s one of the few cartoons that I can say, had a meaningful message of morality in almost every single episode. It truly had a heart and was very special.
As a kid, what TV shows did you “re-create” / play with your friends?
As a kid, I loved The Power Puff Girls. From the colors, the animation, and the message of “girl power.” My cousin, my friend, and I would pick a character, usually I would be Bubbles and we would play around, pretending to fly, and ultimately saving the day. It was good times.
What’s a quality in a person that you really admire? What’s a quality you wish came more naturally to you?
A quality I admire in a person is integrity. In our society, it is becoming apparent that many are unable to appreciate the distinction between what is honest or dishonest by ordinary standards. Morals and honesty are sometimes thrown out the window, and it’s refreshing to see people who have an aura of soundness. A quality I wish came more naturally to me would have to be patience. Sometimes I can become frustrated with things I have no control over or expect far more of myself and others, but I have to learn to understand that things take time to grow and learn and learn to wait a bit because all the pieces will fall together soon enough.
You’ve expressed that your mother is a very resilient, hardworking, and supportive figure in your life. She sounds like a really incredible mom. What is a piece of her best motherly advice?
I couldn’t ask for a better mom, and without her I wouldn’t be the person, I am today. The best advice she could have ever given me was to pick my battles wisely because not everything is worth fighting for. Opportunities come and go and there will be times where you have an obstacle that just won’t budge. Sometimes the best solution isn’t to go head first and deal with it and all its drawbacks, but to stop the voyage and try other paths. Life is way too short to spend stressed out. Fight only for the most important things and the things you cherish, and let the rest go.
When not in the studio, you enjoy creating in the kitchen. Can you share one of your favorite recipes with us?
I won’t be disclosing all the details, like measurements, but I can give you a quick run-down on one of my favorites, southern-style biscuits! We eat them with our breakfast sometimes, or even with some fried delicacies. They’re fluffy, buttery, and will leave you with a full belly.
You’ll need flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, butter, buttermilk, and either shortening or lard…we also have a secret ingredient that will not be shared haha. The instructions are fairly easy, just mix all dry ingredients before adding the fats in next. While mixing with your hands you break apart the butter and shortening until it looks like crumbs or granules. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk (make sure it’s chilled). Mix some more and you’ll have your sticky dough. Drop the dough on a floured surface and dust the top of the dough with flour as well. Roll out dough(not too flat) and then cut out your biscuits with a round biscuit cutter. Place the cut-out biscuit dough on a baking pan, and bake until golden on top. Eat them with some jam, or syrup, or even lather them up with some more butter.
Have you ever accidentally taken a sip of water from the paintbrush water cup?
Never.Never.Never have I ever. But I almost made that mistake once, but I got a whiff of putrid muddy paint water and caught myself, before dumping the water and filling the cup with clean water. I did this so I wouldn’t mistake it for my coffee or another beverage again.
You really began exploring your own art in high school after moving to a new place and starting a new school – a time that really amplified any previous outsider feelings. The feeling of being an outsider seems to be pretty prevalent amongst artists, although a painful and uncomfortable feeling, why do you think so much creation and art comes from that place? Do you think artists and creation can also be mined from sources of joy?
I think this is prevalent amongst artists because it’s an outlet for our feelings and creativity can spark happiness and joy even when we aren’t feeling our best. Art in a sense is a language of its own. We use our materials like words and speak onto the canvas. It’s a way to be heard when many are not listening or some artists may have a hard time communicating those thoughts.
And of course, creations can be made in a time of joy and happiness. Most artists I know actually make most of their work with positivity in mind. I feel that there is sometimes a stereotype that artists are all emo and sit around thinking how the world sucks and should burn, but while some do, all artists are not cut from the same cloth. We usually do a bit of both. Creating when life is going well and using art as an escape when things have been getting you down. My art definitely changes tone a bit when I’m going through different things, but I find inspiration from more things than one…which makes the process fun and ever-evolving.
What does the perfect day in the Southside of Chicago look like? Where would we go and what would we eat?
The perfect day on the Southside looks like me having all the free time in the world to go explore and drive through the neighborhood looking at the wondrous architecture the south side has to offer (it’s a lot of hidden gems in Chicago and I love looking at homes and architecture). Then heading over to get a greasy bite to eat at one of the many great food establishments. With many choices, I could end up getting anything ranging from Italian beef, some wings from Harold’s Chicken, or even some tavern-style thin crust pizza. I know we’re known for the deep-dish, but no one’s eating that everyday, think thin-crust, tavern style, south side, restaurants like Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria and Milano’s. I would end my night with some good eats again and with some friends and family. We would sit on the little patio at the Original Rainbow Cone and enjoy our cold treats while chatting it up, until it’s time to go home.
Remember the Time
Saturday, September 18 from 6PM- 10PM
Masks and Social Distancing Required