When I saw an illustration of a hand with the polite finger thrown up, instantly I knew this is an artist I am going to like. She effortlessly captures the attitudes of a Londoner, in particular women with each piece. She speaks her mind and is an artist who is unapologetic and not afraid to show the sides which are not always pretty, but real and true to her as well as her audience.

The North London based illustrator, Kei Maye is an artist that you can’t help but appreciate. She reminds me of the likes of Rihanna but in a visual art form. Kei’s colourful, witty and organic personality exudes through her work. Each piece has a deliberate mood, and you do not need to spend too much time trying to decipher her message. Whether she’s exploring women’s sexuality or intelligence, Kei accompanies each piece with a dose of tongue and cheek, which makes her work even more relatable.

“It is hard for me to label my style of art. My art is my truth. It reflects my mood whenever I am creating. It can reflect my experiences, and it also reflects certain ideas I have in my head. It can be anything.”

What is great about art is that it allows the perceiver to reflect and form interpretations of what the artwork is about. The art pieces where Kei has drawn characters, you can envision stories solely based on their facial expressions. There is something old but new to Kei’s style of art; it reminds me of the 90’s era infused into today’s time.

From as early as she remembers, Kei has always had an interest in art. When she was fourteen, Kei was exploring the world of graphic art and making websites. “I have always been closely surrounded by creative individuals. My mum used to draw; my late uncle was an artist who used to create wood sculptures, my father is a musician, and my brother’s drawings are out of this world.”

Kei went on to study Graphic Design & Visual Communication at University, and by the time she reached the third year of the course, she did not enjoy graphic design as much anymore. Her creations felt restricted, and she struggled to follow the creative process format the tutors required, as she operated in an alternative, more spontaneous way. “My lecturers would ask me – Where are your plans? Where are your sketches? We need to see how you developed your pieces.” Kei’s approach to creating art stems from her mood, life experiences and music; working to a guideline restricted her flow. “I did not work like that; I would have the idea in my head and create straight off the top. Bottom line, I have to be in the mood to create, I struggle to make things on cue.” She had to adapt her style, “I had to create in a way the lecturers preferred, use techniques they liked, use the fonts they told me to use.” Kei would sit in class and take notice of her peer’s work and realised that a lot of the others students work started to adopt similar styles to one another to accommodate this.

During university, Kei was not cut out to be limited by her lecturer’s scripted approach. To satisfy her creative flow, Kei began to forge an art career but based on her terms. However, she quickly realised that freelancing has similar restrictions as her degree. She felt she lacked the creative freedom she craved.

“My main bone of contention was following briefs. Producing work for other people as opposed to being free and creating what I wanted to create, was something I found difficult to navigate through while remaining inspired and motivated.”

Some of these tasks drained Kei, and when she worked on a project that compromised her principles, Kei knew she had to reevaluate her stance on freelancing.

“I created artwork of a woman who had afro styled hair; I was instructed to straighten her hair because “that look” was not appealing. Furthermore, I was told to enhance her body to make her appeal more sexual. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with afro hair; I felt uncomfortable editing to fit in with European standards of beauty.”

Finding Kei Maye

In the last few years, Kei’s style of art has evolved. When she first started to share her work with the world, flowers and plants were a central theme in her creations.

“Before I was doing illustrations, I was and still am heavily inspired by nature, and it tends to manifest itself in my body of work, organically.”

The more she experienced, the more Kei realised she had a lot more to express. There was only so much she could express through botanical prints, and she started to explore the world of illustration more, putting the pencil to paper, experimenting and enhancing her skills.

Kei’s confidence in her abilities has exceedingly grown. The primary catalyst for this uprising was quitting her job at that time, where she received no sense of fulfilment. “Quitting helped me a lot. For four years, I was working long shifts with abusive customers. I used to think, when would I ever leave this place? I tried hard to get out but I wasn’t getting anywhere, it dampened my spirit.”

Kei went through a period where she had one setback too many, after yet another botched deal with overseas manufacturers. She created a prototype which she sent off to China to be manufactured. “I sent off the exact details of how I wanted these swimsuits to look. I was excited about having my own set of swimsuits produced. However, when I got my swimsuits back they were nothing like what I designed; they were uncomfortable and poorly made. I lost all my remaining money, and I found it difficult to come out of the rut I was in.”

Kei dedicates the majority of her time to her artistry. She is in love with what she does and is fully flexing her art and entrepreneurial skills. Kei recently had her first market stall in the vibrant Portobello market. “I have never been to Portobello before. I loved the whole experience; meeting new people, selling my merchandise, being around like-minded souls was the greatest thing!”

Through my conversation with Kei, I realised the significance of the different scenarios we face in life: You have to go through certain experiences to find out what your likes and dislikes are. To grow in confidence, you need perseverance; you need to act and follow through with action. “This time two years ago, I wasn’t putting myself out there. Now, I have been showcasing my work at various exhibitions, launched a brand new website, selling out prints on market stalls and sharing my work online.”

When you have self-awareness in particular through the lows in life, you learn how to find yourself in the process.