Maddison Chaffer is an illustrator — but not only.
They’re also fascinated by nature, accessibility, books, community, and much more. Art is just one way to connect with it all. Lately, Chaffer’s been busy coordinating murals in the Heartside neighborhood, but they fully believe in the need to have a life beyond putting the pen to page (or tablet).
However, Chaffer’s art is fascinating, full of bold palettes, fluid movement and dreamlike explorations of the mind and body. It’s captivating and has shown up in Brewery Vivant, Sparrows Coffee, Vertigo Music and more — so of course we had to ask Chaffer all about it.
How did you get involved in art/illustration?
I can never give anyone a definitive answer to this — I started drawing when everybody else did, as a little kid, but I just never stopped! I probably started making work more deliberately in middle and high school. I grew up with a lot of early internet art sites that encouraged me to hone my illustration skills, but those sites also gave me a massive complex; I was constantly comparing myself to professionals and full-time hobbyists around the world.
Illustration is a really intimidating field to get into. I tried to break into the game by moving to LA and later New York, volunteering my time, doing freelance gigs here and there, selling prints in the subway stations, etc. etc., but I got really discouraged by my lack of “success.” I moved away from New York, quit freelancing, and almost quit art all together. It wasn’t until I started teaching art to kids that I felt optimistic again. Kids have such an intrinsic love for drawing, a totally shameless knack for it. Nowadays, I try to tap into that kind of joy instead of getting wrapped up in constructed adult notions of success.
What do you love about illustration?
I love illustration because, when done really well, it functions as a universal language. Like music and body language, illustration can transcend literacy, education level, cultural background, and social class. A lot of my work is educational in that I try to explain a complicated concept by breaking it down into constituent parts. I like using visuals as a teaching tool exactly because of their accessibility. With public art especially, I can make ideas available to people who may not otherwise feel comfortable in a science museum (a lot of reading) or an art museum (kind of elitist; way too air conditioned).
What’s your current medium of choice?
I love doing murals! As I’ve gotten older I have less and less patience for sitting inside drawing alone. I would much rather be outside getting a sunburn, moving my whole body, and chatting up the neighborhood.
What drives your creative approach?
Since I moved away from New York and started making art without the intention of turning it into a career, I’ve mainly used illustration as a system of observation and documentation. Creating a visual to illustrate a concept allows me to engage with that concept in a new way. I feel like I have the space to understand something more fully when I draw it. I get to sit with it, feel out all its different corners, ask it questions and wait for answers. It’s almost a meditative practice! I apply this observational approach to pretty much everything nowadays, whether I’m trying to more fully understand my own emotional state, my experiences with abuse and trauma, or just some seventh-grade level scientific idea like how lightning works. Taking the time to observe and document my life, lessons, and physical environment makes me feel more awake to the world around me.
What are your artistic influences?
Most of my art is inspired by stuff that isn’t art! I make a lot of work that relates to philosophy, technology, and evolutionary science. You can probably trace the subjects of my illustrations or murals at any specific period back to the book I was reading at the time!
Can you tell us more about all the murals you’re involved in?
I’m super lucky to have gotten so many mural gigs this season. It’s the perfect marriage of my love for drawing and my distaste for being inside. Plus, I love being able to make stuff that is so directly tied to our community. Since murals are usually public, it’s really important for me to understand the neighborhood that a project inhabits and to consider what residents will want to see on a daily basis. I aim to design murals in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking so that folks can continue to find new elements over time. At the end of the day, these murals belong to the neighborhood!
Any other thoughts on art at large?
Making art is just one part of my life, and I think that artists (and any professional) should be more vocal about that fact! I dislike labelling myself as an artist alone. As I put work out, it’s equally important that I take new stuff in, too. I spend most of my free time foraging and learning about Michigan wildlife. Just like making art allows me to more deeply engage with an intellectual concept, foraging allows me to physically rely on the earth around me for nutrition. I feel more involved, more at home in the world! It’s only from this kinship with the environment that I’m able to balance different aspects of my life — something that’s hard to do when art is simultaneously my job and my joy.
See Chaffer's work at maddisonchaffer.com.