Do you remember what it was like to be a kid? As we grow up, most of us lose the way we looked at the world back then, with a mixture of innocence and unbridled imagination. Rarely is that feeling captured quite so well as it is in the art of Kayla Mahaffey, a Chicago-born painter offering us a new way to look back into our own young minds.

Growing up, Mahaffey always wanted to tell and illustrate her own stories. Now 26, the artist has honed an incredibly distinctive style that’s colorful, joyous, playful, and thought-provoking. Combining realism and cartoons, she uses acrylic and spray paints to craft scenes of young subjects surrounded by representations of their inner worlds.

Living in our society can be tough, and most of the time we have to make the best of it,” says Mahaffey in her artist statement. “A wild imagination can take you so far, but at the end of the day, we need to realize and observe the world around us. This is where I find my inspiration to paint. Colorful paintings that contain hints of whimsy and realism tell a story of inner thoughts and personal issues that sometimes go unheard. Seeing the struggle and the support from the community made my work evolve into a concept that is personal to me. I continue to improve my technique and push creativity in my field in order to paint a beautiful picture of a new world for those around me.”

The layered imagery of each piece is worth a close look. On the surface, the cartoonish figures are lighthearted and fun, but within them are reflections of all sorts of thoughts and emotions: wonder, curiosity, happiness, bravery, uncertainty, and fear. The paintings serve as beautiful reminders that we are all the protagonists of our own stories, carrying within us our own unique experiences and lenses through which we see the world.

In the midst of the George Floyd protests happening all over the United States — a reckoning of the racial injustice deeply imbedded into the country’s past and present — the fact that these subjects are young Black children is all the more powerful.

“As a Black female artist, I am not here to represent all Black people, but to bring awareness to what is happening in our world today and what we can do about it,” Mahaffey says. “These issues hit way too close to home and have always been an issue in our community, but now they’re finally getting noticed. This legendary protest is for change in our culture and in our country, and that responsibility lies with ALL people. We can’t end racism and police brutality without allies and without accountability. So moving forward, we need to listen and learn when issues arise, and when there is a crisis affecting our society we all need to do our best to assist others. And I want to thank all who are speaking out and doing their part to fight for justice and equality.”

Mahaffey recently exhibited a sold-out show titled “Deconstructed” at Los Angeles’ Thinkspace Projects, which explored themes of building and repair and raised funds for Black Lives Matter Chicago and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Check out more of her work at her website and give her a follow @kaylamay_art on Instagram.