I first met Victoria as a student in one of my classes as a third year Junior. She was struggling a little bit but that is pretty typical during the stage. Well, maybe not 'struggling' but in exploratory mode with questionable results. She admitted that she wasn’t really happy with the results but was feeling good about the experimenting and process. Victoria was impressively dedicated to achieving the goals she had set for herself.
I think it was around the last two or three paintings in that first class we had together that she turned a corner. Her painting technique finally pulled together; her compositions were more interesting; and her vision started coming together. It all came together so perfectly that one of the very last pieces she did in that class was accepted into the Society’s Student Show and was selected to be on the cover of the catalog.
From then, Victoria started building her client base with commissions from magazines she got while still in school and then after. Her work has been selected into nearly all the student competitions and she also was selected to have the honor of being the 2015 Zankel Scholarship winner in which she won $10,000 toward her Senior Year college tuition. In a couple of months, she went from inconsistent work to these incredible success markers.
Victoria is a kind, inquisitive soul and head-strong. She has an incredible amount of layers to her personality and as I discovered in this conversation, in her life. With her work, she never seems happy or content and is constantly trying to better herself. Even after all the successes she’s had which she humbly never mentions to anyone, she still is looking to take her work to new places and fulfill herself personally as a creative.
Since this is the beginning of the new school year and Victoria is only at the very beginning of her career, her story can be an inspiration to students and professionals reminding all of us to remember not to close off creative possibilities and opportunities and see where it takes us.
Here is our conversation…
All artwork and animation © Victoria Maxfield
All Photography © Scott Bakal
Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM Lens; Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash; Umbrellas; Reflectors
You just got back from your first ICON experience! You went as a student volunteer and got to experience the professional illustration community for the first time.
ICON was SO fun. It happened at an ideal time for me. I was struggling with post grad blues, feeling uninspired and kind of down at the beginning of the summer but ICON completely changed that.
I know what you mean. It’s inspiring to get out of the house and hang out with friends and meet new people. We hung out and talked a few times during ICON but now that you’re home, how did the week go?
The week was perfect. Everything about it from the talks and workshops, meeting
people I've always admired (trying not to fan-girl too much) as well as meeting young illustrators and recent graduates like myself. I'm so used to trying to explain to my family and others that illustration isn't just children's books and convince them that it is possible to have a job making pictures. To be surrounded by people who not only know what illustration is but also care deeply about it was amazing.
What were some of your takeaways and how do you think the experience will affect you moving forward?
The experience confirmed that this is exactly what I want to be doing. I feel this warm sense of support from the professional illustration community at large in that they encourage the young illustrators just starting out. Like in ways that there are opportunities provided for students like student scholarships and the ability to attend the conference as volunteers. Even though older illustrators will joke about how newer generations will be taking all their business, there is still this general feeling that we're all part of something greater. Most illustrators care about the future of Illustration as a whole as much as their success within the industry. I think there is a good amount of friendly competition as well as support for each other in this field. Seeing the variety of different ways that people work and are successful was very reassuring. I've had concerns about working in a certain type of way that seems marketable or lucrative but hearing about the number of different ways that professionals found their niche made me realize that no two paths are alike.
I’m glad you took the chance with some of your classmates to volunteer at ICON. Too often, students are afraid to take this sort of plunge. It can seem pretty scary but the reality is that everyone is pretty amazing.
Coming home, I have never felt so excited about this career and with this warm feeling of being part of a network of creative and brilliant people.
Let’s backtrack a little. When did you start thinking about making art?
My Mum and her youngest sister, who lived with us on and off while I was growing up, were a huge influence creatively. They were always making things, from strange creatures out of Sculpy to exotic decorated cakes and elaborate costumes.
Ha! Sounds fun…!
Yeah! The three of us made miniature houses together, rooms were made of wooden wine crates with furniture made from various bits of recycling and scraps of fabric from their sewing projects. They were very intricate, with wallpaper and little works of art on the walls. Even the bathroom had teensy rolls of toilet paper.
It seems your Mom had a huge influence….
From the beginning my concept of the world was ‘everything was made by somebody’. Until I was about three, Mum supported our family by marbleizing canvas shoes and selling them on a pushcart in Quincy Market. I was with her all the time. I can remember taking the train downtown every day. She had a basement studio in Chinatown where she floated brilliantly colored acrylic paint on carrageenan, gently rolling the shoes along the surface of the mixture. The shoes were jewel bright and very popular among the tourists at Quincy Market.
When my parents started working in real estate they would give me copy paper and markers to entertain myself for long hours while they worked. I was happy to draw quietly in their office without being bothered.
My Mom would bring home dot matrix printer paper from work and blank forms for me to draw on as well. I drew cars and stuff around the house….
I drew mostly ballerinas while wearing a tutu and glittery gold tap shoes. I wouldn’t let anyone call me Victoria; I was “The Dancing Girl”!
Were you always drawing in school?
I didn’t go to school until 7th grade. My parents had a group of friends with kids around the same age among whose houses we’d rotate going to on a weekly basis. We grew up together like siblings and learned different things from each set of parents. They covered a variety of topics including The Beatles, farming, assembly lines, meditation, Ancient Greece, Black Jack and Shakespeare among other things.
Wow! Kind of amusing that 'The Beatles'' was a 'covered topic'. My kind of schooling...
The structure was minimal and most of the time we were left to our own devices. We played outside almost every day making up elaborate stories and games, putting on plays, planting mini garden plots, inventing languages and building forts. The freedom allowed us to cultivate our imaginations and learn about things in a way that was relevant and interesting to us.
One of the parents gave us all “observation” notebooks. I think they were intended as a scientific exercise, for us to take notes on our observations of nature. But I remember filling mine with colorful drawings of costumes. I was obsessed with drawing costumes. I imagined I would be a dancer or in Cirque du Soleil when I grew up. I remember always having a strong desire to make something "real". Like it wasn't made by an amateur. I made books and costumes, miniature stage sets and puppets but was frustrated by the fact that no matter how careful I was, my creations were not the quality I wanted them to be. There was always something slightly off, clumsy construction, crookedness or showing glue. As I got older and got better at sewing, I became obsessed with making clothes for a time. I loved the ability to design and create something both functional and necessary.
It sounds like you had an incredibly interesting childhood. Based on your story, it’s not a far stretch to imagine why you went to art school.
I’m not exactly sure how the decision was made that I would go to art school. I was always making things so there seemed to be some unspoken knowledge that this was the natural path to take. It seemed like a given or maybe even an expectation from my Mum. No other type of school was ever talked about. Maybe part of it was that my Mum had an unfulfilled dream of art school. She had been persuaded to pursue a business degree by her father so maybe involving me in art so much was part of that. I’m not sure.
Your first school wasn’t MassArt (Massachusetts College of Art & Design) – you weren’t even an Illustration Major. You started at Parson’s. What made you come back to Massachusetts?
I did my Foundation Year and one semester of Communication Design at Parsons. While I love the energy and excitement of NYC, it was also overwhelming and stressful as a student. It costs so much to live there and there's so much going on. Still, its very inspiring. I miss taking walks through the city and seeing so much just across a couple of blocks. It feels like the center of everything creative. I’m very grateful for the time I had there and the friends that I made but I’m also glad I made the decision to transfer to MassArt when I did. The moment I switched to the MassArt Illustration program, it felt like the right place to be. The reality of how difficult it was to keep up with living in NYC and the amount in loans I’d have to pay back finally sunk in.
Yeah. Money is a big issue with schools…
Moving back home to Boston, I felt like I could breathe again.
How was the transition from NYC to back home…
The experience at MassArt was completely different than Parsons for me. At Parsons everyone felt very separate. Students would see each other at class but we didn’t have a community workspace at school like we do at MassArt. Everyone was always busy working, doing an internship, schoolwork or rushing off somewhere. There wasn’t much time to make connections and build community at Parsons. It is a great school surrounded by a great city which has tons of positive things but it became clear that I needed a different environment.
When I transferred to MassArt, I registered into animation. I had taken an animation elective at Parsons during my first semester and became obsessed with it. I spent all my free time working on my project for that class above all others.
How I transitioned from Animation to Illustration is that Animation majors are required to take a few Illustration courses Sophomore year and it was in Media Techniques that I was first introduced to the way Illustration works. At the time Illustration was this mysterious thing that I admired and wished that I could do. The work I saw coming from Illustration departments at Parsons, MassArt and other places I visited had some sort of quixotic brilliance to it. In Media Techniques for our final project we were required to turn in thumbnails, then final sketches before executing the final piece. It was my first experience with this process but it made so much sense and was comforting to know that impressive and complicated works of art took planning and were not just created in one go.
I was on the fence about switching majors again. I really wanted to be in Illustration but felt like I didn’t have what it took to succeed in it.
What pushed you over?
In another Illustration elective, my class was invited into a Senior Illustration class to see a presentation by a visiting Illustrator. It was Becca Stadtlander presenting to your Portfolio class.
Oh, man. I had no idea!
Yeah! In her presentation she talked about how she struggled in school and made a lot of bad work before she figured out a way that worked for her. Not only did I love her work but also she was so real and down to earth when she talked about her path to Illustration. It made me realize that even if I was terrible at drawing and struggling, it didn’t mean I was doomed to be that way forever. It gave me so much hope and is what catalyzed my decision to finally switch.
That's amazing...and Becca inspired so many that day...
One of my first classes in the department, Drawing Observation to Concept was so enlightening and reassuring. In that class we were required to fill at least ten sketchbook pages a week alongside the other homework assignments. It was a difficult exercise but it really helped me to loosen up and be less fearful about drawing.
In that class we were also introduced to a process of ideation which was so eye opening. It helped me to understand how good ideas don’t just pop in your head (well sometimes they do) but creativity is actually something you can exercise and work on. That drawing course alongside the Color for Illustrators class I had that semester opened up a whole new world of picture making. I could finally see how it might be possible to make any sort of picture I wanted to…it was such an exciting time for me. There have been lots of ups and downs and struggles with self doubt interspersed with spurts of inspiration. But that powerful underlying feeling of knowing that anything is possible in the world of pictures is the thing that kept me going during the difficult times and driven to create everyday.
Talk a bit of your experiences now that you were full on in Illustration and started getting into your own groove of picture making.
It was was very challenging and also the most excited and inspiring time creating I’ve ever had.
I’m not sure its appropriate to mention it because you’re interviewing me but when you brought in your sketches and original paintings along with the publication they were printed in to Editorial class, it suddenly made working as an Illustrator seem like an achievable career path.
The reviews at the end of each semester were something to work toward as well. The 9th floor studio was an intense and inspiring place to work for the past couple of years. Surrounded by friends also doing great work, to be able to take a break from a painting, take a walk around the studio, see what others are up to, exchange ideas or give moral support to those having artistic crisis, ask for a critique or have a chat was such a warm and reassuring way to create. Throughout my time there, the fear I felt initially has diminished remarkably.
Are there things you would do in your Junior and Senior year differently now that you've finished?
One thing I might’ve done differently is taken some electives in majors outside of Illustration. I think electives in Graphic Design or Printmaking would’ve been helpful too. I’ve heard positive things from students who have done that and having switched majors myself, I think there are things beneficial to Illustration that can be learned in classes from other departments.
Now when I look back, I think it’s important as a Junior and Senior to expose oneself to as much Illustration as possible in the world outside of school and become familiar with the types of jobs one can get as an illustrator.
I also think looking at lots of different types of artists and not limiting oneself to a particular way of working too quickly is important. There’s sometimes pressure to develop a personal look or “a style” but I think it’s also healthy to experiment as much as one feels inclined to while still in school. It’s the perfect time to make mistakes, try new things and get lots of feedback.
We had these talks about ‘style’ and developing as an artist around the time you took my travel abroad course to London and Dublin for a couple of weeks. The conversations revolved around whether you felt your work was 'authentic' or not and you having a bit of a confusing time near graduation. It was pretty obvious. Can you talk about that?
I am content with what I've accomplished during my time at MassArt and I'm definitely ready to move on now but I had a lot of doubts during my last semester. I struggled a lot. It could be that the trip to London midway through the semester enlightened me to other ways of working.
Art and design in the UK and Ireland is pretty different than what I’m used to here and for that reason it was intriguing and weirdly glamorous. I loved looking at packaging in the shops and seeing English and Irish illustration at some shows we went to and from the artists we met. All of a sudden, I saw everything differently, including my work. During such a high stress time at school, only a month or so away from graduation, I second-guessed everything.
Coming back from that trip I suddenly had no idea what direction I wanted to go in visually. It wasn't exactly a lack of inspiration but I felt very aimless and distracted and unable to complete anything because I would lose interest in an idea right after beginning the project. I didn't make much and it all seemed very forced. I had to make pictures because I didn't want to fail, but I was completely absent from the process.
There are a lot of things going on around that time…
…yeah…maybe it was the trip but I think it also had to do with the anticipation of graduation and feeling like there was too much I wanted to do before school ended. I had this constant FOMO (fear of missing out) thing of needing to be everywhere at once. Hang out with everyone and be out all the time. I wanted to go to every party but also this pressure to create all the images that I ever want to before time ran out. At the same time, I was completely unable to follow through with anything. I was so sad about school coming to an end, up until it did. Now I couldn't be more relieved it's over.
You got back on that horse quickly. This summer, you mentioned you’ve been taking some oil painting classes. You usually work in acrylic but began experimenting with oils near graduation.
I started painting with oil paint because of its slower drying time and richness of hue. I love mixing paint and it’s a lot easier to mix a palette for an oil painting session than with acrylic. I felt frustrated at times because I knew that I was working inefficiently and there was important information about working with oils that I was missing. Reading about oil painting and trying to teach myself was confusing because there’s a lot of information to sift through. This is why I ended up taking a course at the Academy of Realist Art in Boston to learn a traditional method of working with oils. I got tons out of that course, from learning about campitura and dead color layer to learning how to paint fat over lean. I’ve read about these things but didn’t really understand them until I learned about it in practice. Just learning how to be patient, work on one thing at a time and waiting for layers to dry properly before painting over them was a huge thing I got out of the course. I tend to rush and feel chaotic when I paint. I bounce all over a painting working on one spot then seeing something somewhere else in the picture that needs work and getting distracted. Sometimes at the end of the day I feel like I’ve gotten nothing done. So I’m learning to be more focused and careful which I think will help me get the results that I want and be better about the time that I spend on a painting.
It’s smart that you keep exploring different art, materials and methods. It doesn’t seem like your habits have changed since you were a kid!
So now we’re here: You’ve graduated. You’ve had the summer. September is here and you don’t need to go to class anymore. What are you doing now to keep afloat as you begin the process of building your career?
Since moving back home a couple years ago I’ve been managing an Airbnb out of the house where I grew up. My Mum moved into a new house with her partner but wanted to keep our family home. Running the Airbnb supports the house’s expenses and allows me a space to live rent free…for now.
The job involves fielding reservations, communication with guests prior to and during their stay, cleaning the guest rooms and lots of laundry. We rent out rooms and April through December they are consistently full. During the winter, business quiets down a bit however there are usually enough bookings to carry the expenses until peak season. Until 3pm on most days I spend cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry, restocking breakfast items and other tasks. Check in is anytime after 3 pm so from that time onward I have available to do my own work and greet guests as they arrive.
Guests come from all over the world and I get to meet a lot of interesting people. It’s an ideal situation at this point in my life as I have time to work on personal projects and professional illustration work I’ve been getting. Since graduation I’ve sent out a couple of marketing campaigns via email and postcards. It has been nice be able to work on self-driven projects over the summer though. Recently, I’ve been working on a personal animation project. It might take a long time and I’m not exactly sure where it’s headed but I’m enjoying the process.