An interview series of creative women building community, establishing brands and changing the game.
Maayan Alper-Swan is an illustrator and textile designer based in New York. With a long list of countries traveled to and unique collaborations with political organizations, her work is informed by the many cultures she has experienced and issues she is passionate about. Read on to learn about what drives Maayan’s work and her tips for those trying to break into the freelance illustration world!
Tell us how you initially got into textile and illustration work. What led you to blending the two?
I’ve made art for as long as I can remember and pretty much always assumed I would work in a creative field. I have always used fashion and style as a means of self expression and decided to study fashion design, which I thought of as a practical career in the arts. After graduating from FIT, I started freelancing as a womenswear designer. I was becoming quite disenchanted with the fashion industry where I did not feel creatively challenged. At the request of a client, who had seen my sketchbook, I started creating artwork for their collection and immediately realized textile design is where my heart is. It’s a facet of the fashion industry that really values artistry and originality and it felt like the perfect place for me and my work, at the intersection of art and fashion.
As for illustration, it came fairly organically out of the work I was doing in textile and surface design. Some of my surface patterns involve quite detailed ink illustrations and I started getting commissioned to create stand alone artworks and portraits. There is actually a lot of overlap between surface design and illustration, at least in my process, so blending them just happened naturally. Doing both affords me a real multidisciplinary art practice working in a variety of artistic media and seeing my work out in the world in various forms.
What does a typical week look like for you, with balancing commissions, partnerships, etc.?
There is no typical week, frankly. Some are taken up by shorter term illustration projects with more immediate deadlines, some are taken up by conceptualizing and making art for larger scale projects (such as entire textile collections), others are spent doing the less glamorous aspects of the work such as scanning artwork, Photoshop or answering emails. Most weeks are a mix of all of the above. And of course if I’m lucky, I find time to make some personal work and get new ideas on paper. I don’t know how balanced that is but I think I work well in a less structured environment. If every week is a little different, I never get bored.
I love how you're inspired by your travels (and you've been to quite a bunch of amazing places lately). Can you share some experiences that have influenced your work?
Every country I have visited has influenced my work and reoriented my way of thinking, to some extent or another. The tiled halls and patterned facades of Morocco and Andalusia (southern Spain) really made a mark on me and my work. I returned from my travels there with a profound appreciation for the mystic power of pattern and repetition and a desire to be immersed in it more than ever. Visiting the Alhambra was especially monumental for me.
Central Asia and especially Uzbekistan have a very rich tradition of embroidery and textile arts. The way these ancient crafts, originating in tribal traditions, intersect with the remnants of the mid 20th century soviet rule there is fascinating if a bit jarring. I tend to favor odd juxtapositions and Central Asia had that in spades. But it’s often the little things: the aroma of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony (a mix of potent coffee beans and herbs), the voice of a berber musician singing and playing a handmade oud in the Atlas mountains, the call to prayer reverberating between mountains and ancient cave churches in Turkey, the rich taste of fresh banana juice on a hot day in Djibouti City. Those are the things that may be harder to communicate visually but tend to be what really stay with me and inspires me.
What advice do you have for other illustrators looking for a strategic way to work for themselves, illustrate full-time, or get their first client?
Put together a portfolio you are proud of and speaks to the kind of work you would like to get hired for. Allow yourself to grow and develop artistically and don’t stay married to one visual style if you no longer feel connected to it. Be open to a variety of projects and try to learn from every experience, it will help you hone in on the kind of projects you’d want to pursue more of. Cultivate a creative community. Working for yourself often means working by yourself and finding a community of fellow artists can make you feel more supported in an often competitive industry. Be willing and ready to work hard. Working for yourself is very liberating but it’s hard work and it means that you’re not just an artist but also a business owner. Self motivation is important.
Did you always envision working for yourself?
I think so. I should probably credit my father and grandfather. They both worked for themselves as architects which made self employment in a creative field seem normal to me from an early age. I’m very grateful for the freedom that self employment affords me to work from anywhere and on my own schedule, which accommodates my frequent travels and my unusual circadian rhythms. The ability to choose who I work and collaborate with and the projects I dedicate my time to is something that I really cherish.
In 2018, you did some work for Amplifier Art that I think is eye-catching and iconic for this political climate. What was that experience like, being commissioned to create artwork for a cause you care about?
Working with Amplifier Art was great. They are a fabulous organization that really values artists and understands the power that art can have to convey ideas and drive social change. The opportunity to take my work into the realm of political art and iconography was irresistible and the result inspired some subsequent work, such as my Hexes tote bag promoting gender equality. To see my work resonate with so many people, especially women, and in the service of a cause I’m really passionate about was extraordinary. Optimism is hard to muster these days but political activism is inherently hopeful and I felt that in the reaction of many women to this work. I hope to partner with Amplifier Art as well as other organizations in the lead up to the 2020 elections.
What's a big dream of yours for where your work will take you?
I’m very passionate about cultural exchange and women’s rights. I hope to find ways to bring together my travels and my art to support and promote the education and financial independence of women and girls around the world. Another big dream is designing prints for a couple of my favorite fashion designers Dries Van Noten and Stella Jean. They are quite different as designers but they are both absolute pattern-mixing geniuses and I would love to be a part of the magic that they each create.