Maria José Arias G: Reimagining art, advertising and spectrums of storytelling

Back-to-school studio invasion alert! Last month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with emerging illustrator, designer and art director Maria José Arias for coffee and conversation. Born and raised in Cali, Colombia, this spirited creative is currently living in Toronto and studying Advertising and Digital Media Studies at OCAD University.  Amongst numerous plants, framed art prints and an teal vinyl record player, we chatted about: female objectification in mainstream media, the intersecting roles of art and advertising, and navigating the 'latina' label.

What’s your first memory related to art?

A few months after I was born, my mom went back to work, and would drop me off at my aunt’s place every morning. My aunt’s an artist, so from a very early age she’d give me paint and paper to play around with. I spent every morning of my early childhood at her studio, and it really influenced me. She also gave art lessons every Thursday afternoon which I started going to from an early age, and all through high school. I feel like I grew up in a family of makers. My grandma works with wood, my other grandma works with porcelain and all my aunts sew and are super crafty. 

Do you find that your experience living in Cali has influenced your work?

Everything I am today, and everything I do has been deeply influenced by what I lived in Cali. I grew up in a loving and supporting environment, and my parents provided me with opportunities that not every kid in Colombia grew up with. I always took full advantage of everything they offered, and it has brought me to where I am today. I still approach my day to day with that mentality. Now that I’ve been living in Toronto for over four years, I find myself more inspired by my culture and my people when I’m home visiting. I notice things I wouldn’t before, things that I’d take for granted but are actually little gems in our culture. And I also notice fucked up things (laughs). It’s still a very sexist culture.

What’s your take on gender representation in Colombian versus Canadian media?

Colombian media still has a long way to go. How is it that in 2016 we’re still seeing national beers promote sexualized ways of looking at women? The scary part is this type of imagery is so ubiquitous that it has been normalized in people’s minds. Lots of people don’t notice just how wrong it is. I have yet to come across that level of female objectification in Canadian mainstream media. In my experience, I notice people here are more aware of political incorrectness, and do not hesitate to point out and become part of the dialogue. Brands and media in general are aware that every message is being scrutinized, and as consumers of media we have power to shape the conversation.  

Do you often get labelled as a ‘latina’ in Toronto? What are your thoughts on ‘latinidad’?

Moving from Cali to Toronto suddenly makes me a ‘latina’. “Oh, say tequila with that accent. Do you eat tacos all day?” The fact that I love guacamole didn’t help. This was a strange thing to cope with. Here I was, thinking: I am me. What does it even mean to be a latina? Sure, I’ll call myself a latina, but what does that word mean when others label me with it? I feel that allowing others to define me by that means keeping my identity close to that stereotypical construct. 

What role does advertising play in your art/design and vice versa?

Being in the advertising program taught me how to think as a designer. You identify the challenge, you do tons of research, and you begin to strategize and conceptualize a solution that works within specific boundaries. I like how this process gives you a focus. The more constraints you have, the more creative you have to become because you still need to find ways to be engaging while still getting the message across. It’s fun and challenging to come up with ideas, and there’s always the thought of, how am I going to pull this off?? And somehow, everything works out in the end. Lately, I find myself at two ends of a spectrum. On one end, I’m all about the message.. What does this mean? How can this be significant? On the other end, I’m like uugh I just wanna create something that doesn’t mean anything but is visually pleasing. So I’m trying to close the gap.

In your opinion, what are three key elements you need to take into account as an art director?

I have a hard time calling myself an art director. As one, you’re expected to be the master of everything haha I’m not there yet. You should know the basics of everything you will have to direct at any point in your practice: photography, typography, graphic design, illustration, film, animation, UX, coding.. you get the idea. If you don’t know details about the different processes, programs, time-frames, how will you be able to direct those helping you bring a project to life? And who are you to tell them what to do? That’s how I feel about art direction. I think it’s important to have been in others’ shoes in order to empathize with their part in the process.

How does storytelling change when working in illustration and animation?

I’m minoring in Digital Media Studies which is basically just theory. I love learning about what I do on a daily basis and looking at it at a deeper level. The highlights so far have been history of photography and an animation course. The animation course changed me the most. It has a history that is deeply rooted in magic, early flip-books and Cabinets de Curiosités. Learning about animation theory made me examine every animation I watched as a child. Like why did Snow White look so frickin' stiff, and the dwarfs so bubbly and real? The different methods of animation affect the way we connect to the characters and the story. I could go on about this all day really. I just love the freedom that comes with animation. Movement is completely unaware of the laws of physics. 

Studying animation is what really got me into illustration for some reason. It’s about capturing that one moment, but rather than being a slice of life, like in photography, it has the possibility to be anything you dream of.

You can follow Maria's work and projects on her website + Instagram