Interview with Kayla Mahaffey for ‘Remember the Time’

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

Opening Reception:
Saturday, September 18 from 6PM- 10PM

Masks and Social Distancing Required

The New Vanguard III: Interview with Kayla Mahaffey for ‘Adrift’

Thinkspace is proud to present new work by Kayla Mahaffey for her latest exhibition ‘Adrift’ as a part of ‘The New Vanguard III’ showing at The Lancaster Museum of Art.

Mahaffey’s work gives voice to the unheard stories of contemporary youth and, as explained by the artist, “serves as 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.”

In anticipation of ‘Adrift’, our interview with Kayla Mahaffey discusses the mysteries of the deep blue, the American dream, and the power of a clear and collected mind.

SH: How long have you been showing your work in galleries and various exhibitions? Do you remember the first time you showed your work to the public? What was the exhibition?

KM: I’ve been showing my work in galleries since 2016. My first time showing my work was in a group show. My style was totally different and the show’s theme was illustrating films in like a poster form. It was called, “XPO Illustrated Show” and it was a huge step to the beginning of a life as an artist.

SH: When painting, what are you listening to in the background?

KM: When painting, I usually have a documentary or podcast going on in the background. I love learning new things and I like to hear people’s views on various topics. Musically, I like listening to anything energetic and upbeat. Anything that keeps my mind running and keeps me thinking positively. Genres like pop, rock, jazz, and rap are usually my go-to’s and encourage me to move, get up, and paint.

SH: What was the inspiration behind the body of work that you will be showing for New Vanguard III?

KM: The visual inspiration behind, “Adrift”, came mainly from the ocean and sea-life and how vast it is and how it’s depths are mysterious and unknown. For the subject matter, I took inspiration from societal hindrances and how the American dream being achieved through struggle and generational efforts can bring about a story of inspiration and growth or sometimes bring pain and suffering.

SH: When viewing other artists’ work, what elements get you excited or inspire you?

KM: I really get inspired by other artists’ techniques. I love looking at their pieces and studying how they made that painting come to life. I like seeing the brush strokes, color schemes, and process. It makes me get a better understanding of their artistry and helps me learn in the process.

SH: Does having an exhibition at a museum feel different than showing work at a gallery?

KM: It definitely feels more monumental. Not only by the scale of things but by the title and involvement. The atmosphere brings about a notion of advancement not only in my career but in my capabilities. It hits you differently because when we were younger we all went to museums to gaze upon greatness and look at paintings that we thought were unimaginable and grand in some sense. Never would we think that one day we would even be showing at a museum of any kind. It’s a wonderful and beautiful feeling.

SH: Every person experiences that moment, when they are in the middle or even at the start of something, where it feels overwhelming or isn’t going as planned – how do you personally push through those difficult moments?

KM: When things aren’t going as planned, I step back from the problem, take a deep breath, and once relaxed, I tackle the problem head-on with a cool, collected and clear mind. Difficulties come and go in life, but they never cease to exist. It’s best that we find the most effective way to deal with these issues so we can get pass them…each time bouncing back stronger and with more ease than the last time.

SH: If you could show your work beside any artist, in the entire history of art, who would you want to share wall space with?

KM: I would love to show my work besides Jean-Michael Basquiat. Basquiat is a favorite of mine and I feel like our work evokes energy, color, and culture. While our styles are completely different, they include a chaos of color that contains structure, which grounds our pieces. The essence is somewhat similar and shows tons of narrative. If we were showing together in an exhibition, it would be a feast for the eyes, a shock to the senses, and everyone would leave feeling entertained.

SH: What piece challenged you most in this body of work and why?

KM: The most challenging piece had to be, “Don’t Rock the Boat,”. I had a hard time trying to change my color palette a bit and trying to make a much more complex composition. Not only was the composition difficult to organize and keep balanced, but the story challenged me. I had to delve into the journey that many of us make through life and how it can be difficult staying on track and staying balanced, while trying to keep the peace. I tried my hardest to make that statement come through the painting and I think in the end it was a success and worth every headache.

SH: Do you have any pre-studio rituals that get the creative juices flowing?

KM: Before painting, my ritual isn’t anything special. I wake up get some food for nourishment and some water to stay hydrated. I might read a book or a graphic novel for entertainment or might exercise for a bit. The main thing is to keep a clear mindset, stay healthy so you’re recharged, and keep yourself entertained because with this comes inspiration and a good mentality before you Stuart. You don’t want to hit a wall mentally when you’re about to get into the groove of painting.