Kayla Mahaffey

Every month at (Art)iculate Black Boy, we will be interviewing a different Chicago-based artist. We want to give our readers an intimate look (or at least what artists are willing to share) at the creative process and personality of these artists who at many times seem larger than life. For our first ever interview, we had the pleasure of conversing with the amazing Kayla Mahaffey!


Kayla is an artist from the Southside who specializes in watercolor/acrylic paintings that seamlessly blends realistic characters and cartoonish pop art. Within the last year, she has garnered national attention from both Complex and Hi-Fructose. Just recently, Kayla partnered with Line Dot Editions for “Off to the Races”, her second sold out show within a year! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions Kayla.


What was your gateway into art? How did you get involved in the Chicago Art scene?


Growing up I always loved all things art. I loved book illustrations as much as museum artwork. I knew at a young age that I wanted to paint, so I practiced a lot. In high school I started to take it more seriously when the art programs became more advanced and the teacher pushed me to do better. I went to art college for two years before dropping out. During that time I showed my work in a few shows mainly getting invited through social media. In school I made good friends with people I still hang out with now. My peers and I give each other feedback and support one another. One friend told me that some galleries had a few open calls for art and I entered one at LineDot. The artwork was judged by a panel who selected me and a few other artists to showcase at their annual summer show. After the show was over, the gallery wanted to continue to show my work. I started to build my social media after this and people started to recognize my pieces more and wanted me to show with their gallery. 


How has your style evolved since you first started?


Previously, my artwork included tons of nature-based subject matters (animals, plants, etc.) and the colors were a bit muted. I loved doing realistic renderings of these subjects and placing them in ornate compositions that had meaning to it. At the time, I loved painting realistic objects and animals, but was too afraid to paint people realistically. I painted portraits before, but never pushed myself to do more with them. 

Before using acrylics, I solely painted in watercolor on paper. I knew it would be hard to paint incredibly detailed portraits, in watercolor, but I was up for the challenge. I painted everyday, trying to make transitions perfect and the form solid. I started to get really good at it and wanted to take the next step. One day, I experimented and incorporated 2D elements (cartoons, anime, graphic novels, etc) which I cherish, into a portrait I did of my friend. I instantly loved the juxtaposition so much that I knew I wanted to make this style my own. The rest is history. Currently I use acrylics though, mainly because of the quick drying time, easy layer building, and cheapness of the materials.


Which artists Inspire your work?


The artists who inspire me are James Jean, J.C. Leyendecker, and Hebru Brantley. I love each of these artists' styles. Each piece they make tells a story (much like my artwork) that's totally unique to them. They all have well balanced compositions, excellent technique, and dynamic narratives that draws the viewer in.


Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve completed so far and why?


My favorite piece to date is Stranded (the piece from "Off to the Races" *big piece with the two kids and tire). I love this piece so much, not only visually but from a story stand point. The piece narrates a time when obstacles keep blocking your path and how dealing with them head-on and sometimes with a little help you can get back on your journey, more knowledgeable and stronger than ever.


How does the city of Chicago and being a Chicagoan inspire your art?


Growing up in Chicago, has always been a big part of my art. From the corner stores I visited as a kid to the array of characters that inhabit our very streets. 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 notice the opposing beauty a neighborhood like that has to offer, so I like my art to act as a window of a Chicago and a life that people might not see. Chicago is a city full of richness and character that sometimes goes unnoticed by many. I’m proud of how my city has shaped me, and how it has made me resilient and more determined than ever. I integrate Chicago in my work by including not just the spirit of humble beginnings but the hardworking attitude that we all know and love.


How do you see the role of an artist in the modern era?


An artist in our modern society serves as a voice of the people and future. Artists work as a guide to represent the time in their own fashion. Art travels through time, and we want to look back on our pieces and know that we inspired many and showed history of that specific time period through our eyes. Each day, artists bring color, vibrancy, and stimulation to all those around us, giving us a quick lesson or an uplifted spirit with each piece.


What brands of art materials do you primarily use?


I mainly use acrylics from Golden and Liquitex. They can be quite pricey sometimes, but the buttery consistency and saturated hues make it worth the price. I like working on smooth surfaces so I usually go for gessoed wooden or aluminum panels. I use rather cheap synthetic brushes from Blick or Princeton Brushes Co., that hold up pretty well with all the paintings I do, and keeps the paint smooth and flat. I'm still getting into spray paint, and recently purchased some Montana spray cans. I can't wait to try them out.


What is something (not art related) that you wish that more people knew about you?


I want people to know that like any other human, I make mistakes all the time and can be quite clumsy. That I'm really family-oriented and hang out with my family almost everyday. I actually enjoy spending time alone sometimes. I helps me think clearly, solve problems, and I feel like that's when I'm most creative.


Do you have any upcoming shows, projects or partnerships on the horizon that you can share with us?


I'm gonna be pretty busy this year with group shows with Thinkspace, happening about every other month. I'm also having a duo-show at Elephantroom Gallery in October with Dovie Golden. In December, I will be painting a few pieces for LineDot Editions at Scope Miami. I have a few projects in between those exhibits, but you'll have to wait for those. Lol.


Check out more of Kayla's art here:

https://www.kaylamay.art/