Based from her home in Finland, Mai-Ja is a young artist who thinks that she’s weird – but the boring kind of weird.  Having studied Fine Arts, Graphic Design and about to begin an astronomy course, we found her to be anything but boring. Her pastel coloured big eyed girls cross over to the dark side, as Mai explores what she likes to call ‘creepy cute’. At 5am Finalnd time, Mai had a big chat to us about everything from acrylic retarder to particle physicists. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a kid, I remember always telling everyone that I’ll be the next Walt Disney. So, I was ambitious to say the least.

What do you find is the most challenging part about being an artist?

The most challenging thing is to accept yourself and your flaws. And to stop comparing you as an artist to everyone else. I think that’s a common problem among artists. I’m not even close to achieving that myself yet. Still battling with it every day. I mean, there’s days when I feel like I’m totally crap as an artist and I should just stop publishing my stuff. But then again, by publishing I’ve met so many likeminded people. And I’ve learned that many artists feel the same, even artists that I hold in high regard have the same issues. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get over it. Maybe it’s part of being an artist. If you don’t ever doubt yourself – if you feel you’re complete – then you won’t try to better yourself.

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Your candied colour palette suggests a sweetness at first glance, but upon closer inspection your paintings reveal a lot of morbid and occult references. Where do you draw inspiration from?

I think it has something to do with my love of horror movies. Oddly enough though, I don’t really like slasher horror. I like funny splatter though. Like Shaun of the Dead, Army of Darkness etc. But then there’s the horror movies with weird cults and ghosts – I love those. I just love the combination of creepy and cute. There should be a new genre of horror movies: creepy cute.

What does art mean to you? Is it therapeutic? An outlet? A compulsion? A hobby? A career?

I know this sounds weird, but art is me. It’s more than a hobby, a career… it’s everything to me. When I was younger, I tried to explain to people what art is to me. I said, “If I was a flower, then art is the earth I grow in, the sun that shines on me and the water that pours on me… the CO2 I photosynthesise into oxygen…” It perhaps shouldn’t, but it defines who I am, what I am.

What do you think you would do if you could no longer paint? How would your creativity manifest itself?

I think I’d die. I just can’t even think about that. That’s not even an option. I’d probably just wither away.

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What’s your process for planning out a piece and do you use any reference imagery?

It starts with… something that triggers it. A photo. A song. A movie. I get inspiration from pretty much anything you can imagine. I do use references to study the light and shadows. I’m always learning over and over again to think those girls of mine in 3D. I need to bring them alive in my head. And often for that I need references from photos. Like in the last painting, it had a goldfish in it and I  did have to use a reference for that. And for the skulls and flowers. It can take days to just stare at photos and draw the same thing in my sketchbook over and over again. Only within the past two years I’ve learned to make backgrounds in my paintings. I used to hate doing the backgrounds with burning passion, now they’re part of the fun.

How long does it usually take you to complete a painting?

Depends on the level of detail in it and the size of it. Well, I have rest days but I think 1-2 weeks is a fair amount of time. With digital painting it’s less (again depending on the level of detail) it’s around 2-7 days. I should just learn to take more breaks, I can paint 8 hours with only like one or two small breaks. Which can’t be healthy. And I paint until I can’t hold the pen or brush anymore. I should start setting alarms on my phone that would ring every hour and I’d do some stretching.

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You do both traditional paintings and digital, which do you prefer?

I love them both. Acrylic is way more challenging than digital. And since digital painting makes my hand hurt pretty quickly I like to change between them. When I paint with acrylics my hand is in a different position so it doesn’t hurt. I like acrylics because I can really feel the painting when I do it. And afterwards it’s something I can hold in my hands. Granted you can hold prints in your hands, but it’s not the same. I’ve learned I don’t have to choose between them, so both have their pros and cons. I can’t use oils because I have atopic skin. The doctor even told me when I was young that I couldn’t be an artist. I told her – yes I can. And here I am. I just have to avoid oil colours that use turpentine, I have water-mixable oils. But I have the attention span of a humming bird, I can’t wait for them to dry so don’t really use them anymore.

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Your characters all have a real quirky sense of style, do you draw inspiration from your own fashion choices?

I wish I had my girl’s dresses. I used to colour my hair all kinds of pastel colours, but nowadays I’ve let my own hair colour come through. I think I do paint what I would wear and what appeases my eye fashion-wise. It’s just hard to find those dresses, and if I do they cost an arm and a leg. So I choose to just paint them. Much cheaper. My closet consists mostly of clothing that has Star Wars stuff on them these days. Like, right now I have on a varsity jacket on with a stormtrooper helmet on the back and the text “dark side”. I’m pretty much a huge nerd. I’ve fully embraced my nerdom. I used to play table RPGs, I still do play video games sometimes. I love astronomy and space stuff, I enrolled in this open university course on astronomy and I can’t wait for it to start. My dream husband is Brian Cox (the particle physicist). Last time I was in the planetarium I almost cried because it was so pretty. Painting a nebulae with acrylics is a bitch to do. But one day I will do a painting with constellations in it. 

Have you found an amazing technique or approach that you wish you’d discovered earlier?

Acrylic retarder… that stuff is magic. It slows down the drying time of the acrylics to about an hour depending how much you use it. That’s how I get smooth gradient changes. These days I can’t live without it.

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Who’s your favourite artist at the moment?

At the moment… hmmm that’s a tough one. I collect art books, there’s a lot of artists I love. I adore Junko Mizuno. And of course Mark Ryden. I’m pretty sure anyone who likes big eyes likes Mark Ryden. I also love Hideaki Kawashima. Also, love love love Aya Takano’s work. She’s Japanese too and always gets me on a good mood when I see her work.

Do you have any artistic plans or goals for the coming year?

Well, I was thinking of having my first proper solo gallery exhibition. But then again I should probably apply for it first. I  keep thinking “nah I’m not ready yet. They’ll laugh me out of the gallery.” It’s scary to put yourself out there like that. A lot people have been encouraging me and stuff so I’ve started to be more brave about it. I just gotta figure out where to apply! I was hoping to get an exhibition abroad but I have no idea where I should start. Maybe I should start in Finland first. A lot of decisions to make. Finland would be great, but I just… I’ve always wanted to go out there more. The really big dream would be to have an exhibition in Japan. Because my big eyes started when I saw some Japanese pop art and I fell in love with i. That’s where I saw all the pastel colours and it just blew my mind.

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Stop comparing yourself to others. Which I’ve kinda failed to follow, but baby steps!

For the next 5 questions, I want you to answer with the very first thing that comes to mind. No hesitating.

If there was a movie produced about your life, who would play you, and why?

It’d be this really weird cartoon. Something like Invader Zim or Lenore. I think some stop motion puppet would play me. And the narrator would be Morgan Freeman!

You’re a new addition to the crayon box, what colour would you be and why?

I keep thinking black… actually I keep thinking Johnny Nicepainter from the Fast Show yelling “black black black!! So, I think I’m gonna go with black.

If you won a million dollars right now, what would you do with it?

This is no brainer. I would buy a small house in the middle of nowhere, where I can see all the stars properly. I’d get a telescope and just live the rest of my days there with my cats painting and staring at the stars. Probably somewhere in Lapland.

What kitchen utensil would you be?

I’d be a knife. First I wanted to say a fork for some reason… but knife. Definitely a sharp knife.

What’s the weirdest thing in your studio right now?

Weirdest thing in my studio is that I don’t have a studio. I paint at home. But the weirdest thing in my home… I have my cat’s ashes in an urn. I don’t know if it’s exactly weirdest but I’m pretty sure it’s weird for some people. Actually, the weirdest thing here is me.

Was heaps of fun chatting to you Mai, thanks again! If you’d like to see her in action, check out this process video she made for her most recent piece Little Miss Psycho.

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