Pictorial Magic: Kayla Mahaffey’s Chicago Dreamscape

Chicago Hope: A Burst of Color and Optimism

Interview by Gwynned Vitello // Portrait by Bianca Garcia

A Vibrant World of Hope and Perseverance

In the captivating portraits by Kayla Mahffey, we encounter wide-eyed children filled with a radiant sense of hope and determination. With vibrant colors and animated brushstrokes, Mahffey brings these young subjects to life, evoking a sense of freedom and adventure. These paintings not only evoke nostalgia for the innocence of childhood but also inspire a warm and protective sentiment. Mahffey, a proud Midwesterner born and raised in Chicago, embodies the satisfaction of hard work, with a touch of youthful joy.

An Early Fondness for Coloring Books

During her upbringing, Mahaffey found solace and inspiration in coloring books. With editions featuring beloved characters like My Little Pony, Barbie, and the iconic Lisa Frank designs of the ’90s, these coloring books not only taught her to color within the lines but also nurtured her artistic spirit and offered therapeutic value.

A Dream to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books

Mahaffey’s love for books led her to dream of becoming a writer and illustrator of children’s books. As she delved into the captivating stories and admired the detailed illustrations within the pages, she felt a strong desire to create her own unique characters and stories. This dream has stayed with her throughout her life, and while she has yet to release her first children’s book, she remains hopeful that one day it will become a reality.

Bursting with Positivity and Vibrant Energy

Mahaffey’s paintings exude a sense of positivity and vibrant energy, reflecting her own optimistic outlook on life. Despite the challenges she faced during her childhood, she always maintained a positive attitude. Surrounding herself with positive and supportive individuals shaped her perception of the world. She believes in finding the good in people and sees every situation as an opportunity to learn and grow. Through her art, she aims to capture and share the beauty and goodness that exist in the world.

A Multifaceted Career Path

While Mahaffey has primarily focused on her career as an artist, she has also considered other paths, including becoming a teacher or professor in the future. Her passion for learning and sharing knowledge with others drives this desire to enrich the next generation. Additionally, during her high school years, she contemplated pursuing a career as a historian or biologist, showcasing her diverse interests and curiosity about the world.

Cartoons: A Source of Inspiration

Cartoons have had a significant influence on Mahaffey’s artistic journey. Initially considering a career as a cartoonist, she was drawn to the charming humor and vintage appeal of older cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, and Looney Tunes. As she grew older, she found inspiration in more modern cartoons like SpongeBob, Powerpuff Girls, and The Simpsons. Currently, she enjoys watching anime like Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer, which continue to fuel her creativity.

Evolving Style and Subject Matter

Throughout the years, Mahaffey’s artistic style and choice of subject matter have evolved. While her earlier works included a variety of age groups and themes, she now predominantly focuses on painting children. Her paintings aim to evoke a sense of freedom and capture the nostalgic memories associated with childhood experiences. The style of her art has also undergone significant changes, with experimentation leading her to combine rendered figures and portraits with cartoon drawings, ultimately finding her unique artistic voice.

A Self-Taught Path

Mahaffey has taken a self-taught approach to her artistic journey, without the guidance of a mentor. Through social media, she and her peers began showcasing their work and caught the attention of galleries interested in exhibiting their art. Participating in group shows and juried exhibitions paved the way for her breakthrough. Her social media presence and regular updates contributed to the rapid popularity of her work. She acknowledges the role played by galleries, social media, her supporters, and her own dedication in her success.

Inspiration from Faces and Photographs

Mahaffey draws inspiration from various sources, including the children in her neighborhood and both vintage and modern photography. While some paintings capture the essence and mannerisms of the children she encounters, others reference old family photos or feature completely new faces. It brings her great satisfaction when individuals see a resemblance between her portraits and their own childhood or someone they once knew.

Tenderness in Portraying Different Generations

Whether portraying children or elderly individuals, Mahaffey strives to capture the essence of each age group. Her paintings of the elderly convey a somber narrative, emphasizing the importance of appreciating life and finding one’s happy place. On the other hand, her paintings of children exude vitality and innocence, reflecting their carefree nature and their place within a society they are just beginning to understand. Through contrasting color palettes and compositions, she conveys the unique qualities of each age group.

The Versatility of Acrylic

Acrylic is Mahaffey’s preferred medium due to its versatility. It allows her to achieve vibrant and saturated colors while also offering the option for dilution and glazing. Acrylic’s fast drying time enables her to layer and blend values efficiently. Mahaffey finds that adding water to the paint or working with a soaked brush enhances the fluidity of her brushstrokes. This medium beautifully complements her style, allowing her to create flat and vibrant cartoon elements alongside rendered figures.

A Creative Process of Sketching and Color Choices

Mahaffey’s creative process begins with sketching out her ideas and creating quick thumbnails to establish a composition. While she rarely deviates from these initial sketches, she sometimes adjusts the placement of figures to ensure balance and visual appeal. Color choices initially occur spontaneously, with the child figures receiving certain hues followed by the background colors, which are initially applied randomly. She then refines the color palette to create a harmonious and balanced composition.

A Consistent Routine and Studio Requirements

Mahaffey follows a consistent routine in her art practice, which remained largely unaffected by the pandemic. Working from home, she maintains a daily schedule that includes painting, exercise, and personal time. Her studio essentials include two cups of water for brush cleaning and dilution, background music or podcasts for inspiration, and snacks like tea, water, granola, nuts, or gummy candy to keep her energized. With these simple requirements in place, Mahaffey can create her best work.

The Mural Experience: From Nerves to Knowledge

Embarking on her first mural project was nerve-wracking for Mahaffey. The prospect of painting on a larger scale and using different tools presented a new challenge. However, she quickly adapted to the process. She learned the importance of considering supplies, using tools like ladders and paint rollers, and managing her time effectively. A crucial insight she gained was anticipating the physical demands of mural painting and accounting for changing weather conditions. Despite initial apprehension, the experience taught her invaluable lessons that she now applies to her mural projects.

A Deep Connection to Chicago

Chicago holds a special place in Mahaffey’s heart. While she has moved around within the city, she has always remained on the South Side, where she calls home. The city’s cultural significance, its resilience, and the experiences she had growing up have shaped her identity as an artist. She acknowledges the challenges the city faces but embraces its unique spirit and the warmth of its people. Should she ever leave Chicago, she knows she will deeply miss the city’s essence and the incredible food it offers.


Kayla Mahaffey’s remarkable journey as an artist showcases her commitment to capturing the beauty and positive aspects of life through her vibrant and animated paintings. From her early love of coloring books to her dream of writing and illustrating children’s books, Mahaffey’s passion for art has been evident since her youth. Through her unique style and choice of subjects, she conveys a sense of hope, tenderness, and joy, inspiring viewers to appreciate the wonder of childhood and the resilience of the human spirit. As a self-taught artist, Mahaffey’s success can be attributed to her own dedication, her engagement with social media, and the support of galleries and her growing fan base.


1. Is Kayla Mahaffey a self-taught artist?

Yes, Kayla Mahaffey is a self-taught artist who has honed her skills through experimentation and dedication to her craft. She did not have a formal mentor during her artistic journey.

2. What influences Kayla Mahaffey’s artistic style?

Kayla Mahaffey draws inspiration from various sources, including cartoons, vintage and modern photography, and the children in her neighborhood. These influences shape her vibrant and animated style, evoking a sense of nostalgia and joy.

3. How does Kayla Mahaffey incorporate storytelling into her paintings?

Through her paintings, Kayla Mahaffey aims to tell stories and convey messages. She portrays different age groups, capturing their unique experiences and emotions. Her focus on children reflects themes of freedom and new discoveries, while paintings of the elderly emphasize the significance of appreciating life and finding happiness.

4. What is Kayla Mahaffey’s preferred medium?

Kayla Mahaffey primarily works with acrylic paint due to its versatility. Acrylic allows her to achieve vibrant and saturated colors while providing the option for dilution and glazing. She enjoys the fast drying time of acrylic, which facilitates layering and blending techniques in her artwork.

5. How has Kayla Mahaffey’s connection to Chicago influenced her work?

Kayla Mahaffey’s deep connection to Chicago is evident in her artwork. Growing up on the South Side of the city, she embraces the unique spirit and cultural significance of Chicago. Themes of resilience, nostalgia, and warmth permeate her paintings, reflecting the experiences and memories associated with her hometown.