María Jesús Contreras reveals the healing impulse behind her surreal and retro art
Chilean artist María Jesús Contreras explores the influences behind her distinctive and entrancing artwork, which often focuses on animals and always looks on the bright side.
Magical realism is a literary genre that combines realistic narratives with magical or fantastical elements. It differs from traditional fantasy or science fiction, where the setting is often a completely imaginary world. Instead, magical realism is typically set in the real world, with magical elements appearing alongside the everyday and mundane.
While magical realism has become a global phenomenon, it originated in Latin American literature. And it's been a big influence on the work of Chilean artist María Jesús Contreras, who has worked with clients such as Wetransfer, Universal Music, Elektra Records, Love Watts, We Present, and Domestika.
"My work is inspired by everyday life and how we can make it a little bit magical," she explains. "Since I'm from Latin America, I grew up with magical realism, reading Garcia Marquez, Borges and Cortazar at school. Plus, I'm from the countryside, where many stories centred around something surreal or the idea of animals behaving like humans. In fact, it's hard for me to illustrate a specific thing without thinking of the form of the clouds or some creature moving in the background."
Influenced by both 70s psychedelia and the colourful 90s posters of her youth, María loves working with analogue techniques like risograph printing. Her work is distinctive, retro, surreal and, perhaps most importantly, fun. "Life is super-hard sometimes, and I think illustration can portray a difficult subject without removing the bright side," she explains.
Sense of loss
That said, both happy and sad themes are reflected in her work. "Sometimes I draw, for example, the spirit of a pet and use of plenty of saturated colours," she says. "But it still makes you feel nostalgic because the feeling of loss – of a love one, of childhood, of magic – is still living in our memories."
And there's a theme of nostalgia running throughout all her work. "That's because I live in the past a lot," she says. "I know it's not very healthy, and people say you should live in the present, be mindful, and so on. But I also think revisiting memories and giving new meanings to things makes us overcome trauma and heal. I create images to make us reconcile."
Perhaps surprisingly, María originally trained as a graphic designer. But she quickly became disillusioned by the limitations of the discipline.
"I was a good student, but I felt my school was trying to remove my identity," she explains. "They were talking about the Bauhaus, minimalism, or Kandinsky, and I appreciate them all. But what do you do when you are from South America, and everything is chaos of colour and a beautiful mess? It took me a couple of years to run from what I learned: to keep what I needed but try to make something that represents our culture."
Her work typically features animals in interesting scenarios. "Art has been looking to people for a long time," she says. "But I think I prefer animals. I love my family and friends, but I believe our society is too centred on humans. I don't want people from the future looking at the illustration, thinking that the only thing on the planet were humans – and that we were very egocentric!"
Something else that shapes her creative outlook is the character of her home country. "We are a super-long country!" she exclaims. "At the top, it's desert, and in the south, it's Antarctica! I'm from where Patagonia begins, so it rains all day long, and I spend a lot of time inside the house, drawing and seeing the beautiful landscape, being a spectator of this immense green and blue."
Despite working digitally, María likes to begin each piece on paper. "I'll start by doing a rough idea of the world I'm creating," she explains.
"Today, for example, an idea came to my mind of a long-haired dog that takes care of the cows. He's green – a grass hill with the face of a dog – and then there are little animals cutting his hair like he's going to the hairdresser, but the little cows are helping him. I have to draw it in pencil fast before I lose the idea. And then I'll rush to my computer to open Photoshop, put my drawing on a layer, to begin drawing on top of it."