Newquay-based Maia Walczak is an artist, author and award-winning children's book illustrator. You may have seen her distinctive line drawings and vibrant, natural hues radiating from the pages of our 2020 magazine, in which she visualised ideas around slowing down, awakening the senses and exploring the world like a child to boost mental and physical wellbeing. We caught up with her to talk colour, silent books and the wonder of existence…
How would you describe your art?
I work mainly in two different styles: my children’s book illustration style, and my artwork inspired by surfing and nature. In my opinion they are pretty different, but I think there is something that ties them together: the feeling behind them, or what I long to express through my work. That feeling of wonder and enchantment at this thing called life, and a love of the wild and nature.
What are you trying to inspire in viewers and readers?
For me creating art is a means to express the things I feel passionately about. Whether it’s a connection to the wild, a compassion and sensitivity towards nature and all living beings, or that inexpressible sense of wonder and awe at the fact that we exist. There could have just been nothing, and yet here we are. If through my work I can inspire moments of awe at our existence, inspire a sense of magic and wonder, then my work is done!
How do you use colour in your work?
My use of colour has never been particularly conscious, I’ve always just gone with what I like the feel or look of. But reflecting on the colours in my work, I do have quite a warm and earthy palette as well as a turquoisey sea palette. I really love warm tones – browns, peaches, terracottas, coppers and golds – and mixing those with different hues of turquoise.
Tying in with our piece about G.F Smith’s search for the world’s favourite colour…What's your favourite colour and why?
Oh this is tricky! I honestly can’t choose one, and even if I did it’d probably change over time. Perhaps that gorgeous turquoise colour of the sea here on a sunny day, when the sea is still. But I think that’s more based on association, and if taken out of context, would I love that colour as much as others, like golden yellows and warm peaches, or earthy terracottas, coppers, olive greens or dusky pinks? Too many beautiful colours to choose from!
How can colour elevate a story? Can you use it as a narrative device?
I think colours make us feel, and also think things. When I talk about associating a hue of turquoise with the sea here in Cornwall on a still sunny day, that’s just one example. Looking deeper into that analogy, I wonder whether I love that colour because of even earlier associations, like childhood holidays in the Mediterranean… So when I see it here in Conrwall, I immediately feel like I’m a child on holiday and it makes me happy – who knows? But the hues artists use, cold or warm, dusky or vibrant, will give off a mood in a piece. I’ve never studied or looked into colour theory – my use of colour is intuitive. I do think how we choose to use colour can have an effect on a story. In at least a couple of books I’ve created there were particular pages where I used more vibrant colours to give a sense of abundance and joy for that part of the story.
What inspired you to create wordless books?
I thought to myself, there are silent films, and they tell a story without words, so why can’t the same be true of a picture book? So I decided I wanted to test that out and challenge myself to tell a story only through pictures. I also had this sense that there are some things or feelings that are hard (sometimes even impossible) to express through words, and that words can sometimes confuse or complicate what you want to express – as if they were the middlemen not doing a great job, muddling things up. Words are tools we use to deliver thoughts between our minds. I have a thought, I say it/write it, you hear it/read it, and it’s now in your mind. Words have to go through our brains and be deciphered and interpreted before they reach our hearts. So maybe without words, the mind could be bypassed and certain things could be said directly to the heart.
I sometimes compare it to how, for me, a piece of music without words can often speak to me more deeply than an equally beautiful piece of music with words, even if the words are lovely and trying to express something profound.
How have people responded to them?
In a silent book, the beauty lies in the interpretation. I’ve had parents tell me that they love these books, because they can be ‘read’ again and again with new stories made up to them, so it never gets boring. Others have said they love how interactive they are, and how they engage children (as well as the adults!) when reading them. On one hand, these are not books to be read lazily – they demand some attention if you want to get the story out of them. But on the other hand, if you just want to look at some pictures without trying to suss out a story, these books demand less attention than a worded book. It all depends on how you ‘read’ and engage with them, and what you want from them. I think that’s what people find quite special about them – you can pick them up again and again and get something new each time.
The books have also been used in primary schools to encourage and inspire children into creative writing, as prompts to write the story to. I’ve also had language therapists tell me that they use them to try to help children and adults to talk, which is an absolutely beautiful thing to find out!
Your books encourage a connection with nature and the outdoors. How do you like to explore this yourself?
Connecting with nature and being outside as much as possible are such passions for me. Be it through things like surfing, hiking, foraging, bivvying under an open sky, or even just simply tuning into the magic of birdsong at dusk, dawn, or anytime of the day!
Looking ahead, what’s in the pipeline?
One thing I feel inspired to focus on more this year is developing my style in my original pieces, and building a collection of original artworks/paintings, possibly for an exhibition further down the line. I have focused a lot on commissioned pieces and illustration work over the last few years, which has been incredible, but I feel called to start to give more time to developing my own creative personal work more fully, especially in the form of original artworks.
A children’s picture book that I finished working on earlier this year for author Caroline Nieuwenhuis is also on the verge of being released. Leave Nothing But Footprints is a book that raises awareness on the issue of ocean plastics. It was such a treat to illustrate it, and I’m so looking forward to its imminent release.
Maia’s latest wordless picture book, Wylder, is out now.