Kayla Mahaffey
JUXTAPOZ|Fall 2021
Chicago Hope
Gwynned Vitello

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 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 beauty 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 leftfield, 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 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, PowerpuffGirls, 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.

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