Maria Magdalena Atelier

We visit the entrepreneur at her light and bright corner office

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon

In keeping with traditional Afrikaner culture, Maria Magdalena van Wyk, as the second-born daughter, shares a name with her paternal grandmother and two cousins. She’s now disseminating this name via her original artworks being exhibited in New York, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban.

After completing a Bachelor of Technology in Graphic Design at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2010, the PE local moved to Cape Town to work as a senior packaging designer. She also began dabbling in a bit of freelance work on the side.  

While working on digital illustrations for Angry Birds, Maria Magdalena began to develop her own style of black ink line work. She has since established a brand that does everything from cushions to coffee mugs, wallpaper to wine labels, fine-art prints, commissions and exhibition work.

We visited the artist in her new studio above The Cornerstore, where we caught her quietly doodling on the same simple trestle table where she does her artisan homeware collection, commission work, original art, graphic design, branding, and admin work for her online store. 

“With fine work, it’s good to lean on something. When painting, I’ll use an easel, I’ve been working in watercolour and enjoying the expressive strokes, but most of the time I do everything at this desk.”

Taking a closer look at the illustration of a cabin in the woods, which Maria is working on using a 0.05-point archival ink pen on Fabriano paper, we ask why she chose to depict this particular scene.

“I’d done a drawing of a girl and decided that she needed a home. That often happens where something I’m drawing will lead to another drawing. I like my drawings to have stories. I love stories. I’d love to do a book one day.”

While she works, the women from her first collection – Winona Ryder, Marie Antoinette, Frida Kahlo and Carmen Miranda – watch over her. These are strong, influential and creative women from the past and present whose stories Maria identifies with.

“When I started my first drawing collection I was working in a tiny space and felt it really daunting to show my work, so I took inspiration from these really powerful women.”

Small spaces seem to be a theme in her work and this new studio is extremely cosy, which is just the way Maria likes it, saying that all she needs is a second chair for clients to come sit with her and then some good, natural light.

The bright white room almost has a gallery feel to it and that’s courtesy of Maria’s best friend, an interior architect, who hung everything in here and does all of Maria’s installations for her.

“It’s nice to have the stuff hanging here, so if people come in for a commission or for a meeting, it’s all beautifully presented. Those are my ceramics on the wall, too. Nothing commercial, pottery is something I’ve always just done. Since I was little, my mom would take me to lessons and then at university we had some classes as well.”

Maria keeps a secondary studio in the BoKaap where she can go play with clay and get messy, and while people have commented on how much they really like her ceramic work, she wants to keep this for herself right now.

“It’s nice to have something that’s just for me, so I want to keep this small and not have to get to the stage where I’m producing for stores or anything. But who knows, I’m trained as a graphic designer, and the line drawings were just something that I’d always done. When I was broke I’d do a little drawing for someone as a birthday present or whatever. My mother convinced me to try and focus on it and so I did and as you can see, it got out of hand.”

Having done the corporate thing before, working with the team behind MasterChef amongst others, Maria recently gave up the constant back and forth, waiting for approval and conference calls that defined her job, and has been a boss for exactly eighteen days at time of interview.

“My creative outlet became a side business around 2014. And it’s only now become my focus because I had to save a lot of money first to go off on my own. I’d recommend people don’t just jump into a freelance or entrepreneurial career straight away. It takes a long time to set up a business and make it sustainable. Starting a business like this, it’s not just the drawing, you have to be able to build an online store, take photos, build a client base, have meetings. There’s a very broad range of skills that I’ve had to acquire just to run a little art business.”

With just under three weeks of working for herself, the 27-year-old entrepreneur misses having people older and more established than her to learn from, but this is a very short list compared to what she enjoys, the main one being that she now calls the shots.  

“At my last job there were sixteen people who’d have to approve something and that just becomes a hack when you design something so beautiful and then sixteen people change it until it doesn’t even represent the initial design anymore. With graphic design, it’s annoying when you do things for a very specific reason, you know why you’ve done the spacing, where the logo will be applied, and then someone feels they need to give their opinion. That doesn’t always make for the best design.”

Which is why at her atelier, Maria is able to do the best design and the type of work that moves her, which includes a group exhibition in Pretoria involving potjiekos and a trip to the Kruger to make an interactive installation that will incorporate everything from woodcarvings to pillows. 

However it’s the little details that Maria loves the most. “When someone buys an original," she says, "I feel like they’re taking a part of me, so I like to write them little notes.”