There's something both fragile and timeless about Maia Walczak's illustrations and art: a secret door into the sacred space of childhood memories, a place by the sea inhabited by giant monsters and magical mermaids who are guarding the most precious of treasures.
Her name itself, Maia, is an international mixture of mythical lands and childhood references, spanning the Central American legendary people to one of Japan's most enduring animé export, featuring a mischievous honey bee that used to delight children around the world. Equally exotic in real life, Maia is of Polish origin, grew up in London and was first introduced to surfing 10 years ago while living and working in Chile. After settling in Mexico for a while, her oracle came in the form of two British surfer girls: "I met two girls from Newquay who convinced me that, as a self employed freelancing artist and a lover of surf, I no longer had any business going back to live in London again and that I needed to move to Newquay. So I did. It seems that a fair amount of voyaging has led me to this place."
Maia is an award-winning picture books illustrator (Otis Lemon & The Spectacular Submarine, Platinum Junior Design Award 2016 in the Children’s Book of The Year), who also created a series of Silent Books – picture books without words – used in schools the world over to encourage writing and creativity in children, as well as to help in language learning and speech therapy. She is also talented with words and published her first novel, The Colour Black, in 2014.
Surfing led her to flex her art onto new canvases, including surfboards, skate decks and fins: "I painted my first surfboard over eight years ago for a friend of mine when I was in Chile. I absolutely loved the experience; the smooth surface of the board was such a pleasant canvas to work on. Years down the line I decided to branch out onto all sorts of skate decks too, as well as surf fins… It was a natural progression, whilst looking for new canvases for my work. The process of how I work on commissions like these tends to vary from client to client – generally speaking, I work with a brief, I sketch up a design, and once we’ve agreed on that I start painting onto the board or fin."
Her style is inspired by a multitude of influences: from classic children books' illustrations ("the other day, I came across some very old vintage Polish children’s books: there was some kind of overarching feel to all of the illustrations that I absolutely love!"), to nature itself ("there are some days, when the sun is shining, and the surf is glorious and I’m in the water somewhere in Cornwall and I look around and all I see is blue skies, turquoise seas, luscious green land and epic cliffs or sand dunes, and I really truly do feel that there’s no place in the world I’d rather be.")
When she talks of the unique qualities of illustrations versus the written word, we understand better why hers are so evocative and poetic: "words are the most incredible tools we have for communication, but sometimes I find that words just don’t quite cut it. It’s fun to experiment how emotions, atmosphere, feelings can be expressed through just imagery. [Illustrations] speak more to the heart than to the mind, they are more about feeling than about intellectual thinking. It’s the same for me when it comes to music. A beautiful piece of music without lyrics will often make me feel something so much stronger and more powerful than if it had words to it".
Which explains both the concept behind 'Silent Books' and the rich nature of her surf art. It also explains how conscious Maia is of the power of imagery in modern society, particularly when it comes to depicting women. Her unconventional female portraiture is refreshing, featuring curly haired and bushy-brows mermaids, rugged and strong sea women bringing back a new kind of 'sexy': "the 'pretty and sexy' is defined by the closed minded white heterosexual males that are generally still in charge of the mainstream media. I’m so bored of a standard of physical beauty that we are supposed to aim for, it’s draining, especially because it’s so in our faces with our constant access to media these days. I’d love to see more women, more body shapes, more skin colours and more ages in surf media."
But Maia isn't just your straight-up feminist. Just as characters in children books are often genderless (animals, magical creatures of the seas and forests), she believes people should be able to define themselves in a non binary way, something the surf media has no depiction of whatsoever: "I feel like there needs to be a broader vision of gender in general. Nowadays I can see and understand that gender is so much more of a spectrum, rather than two polar forces. And when you see that, you also realise that women trying to define themselves against men in the media is, in some ways, a pretty hopeless task. Perhaps we should be striving for freedom and inclusion, as opposed to definition."
And that is probably where the treasure lies in Maia's work: the endless ability to invent oneself, in harmony with the elements, with all the vulnerability and frailty that such an enterprise entails, yet only usually embraced by the most vulnerable: children, rebel teens, men and women living on the margins of society who don't possess anything but their freedom.
"I think for a long time some of my most favourite picture book stories have been ones that touch me in some way, tug at the heart strings. If a children’s picture book can nail something profound and make you feel something deep inside, then for me that’s pretty impressive."
And pretty impressive it is indeed! We can only imagine how owners of those awesome boards have acquired special powers, including that of giggling for no apparent reason while hugging their colourful acquisition, staring at the sea, staring at the sky and seeing what others don't see, looking back down at their feet and feeling grounded with the entire universe.
Chief Storyteller at Swellbound