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The Traveller: An Interview With Maya Erdelyi

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Maya Erdelyi does not live in Los Angeles. A handful of months ago, on a cold evening in Echo Park, the animation artist and filmmaker was enjoying one of her final nights in town with a cup of tea at her dining room table. “I guess I move around a lot,” she says with a smile. “It’s good for me—difficult sometimes, but ultimately, it’s very stimulating and inspiring. New Orleans, where I’m moving, is a culturally rich place: I’m excited to learn about it—and now I can officially say I’m Tri-Coastal.”

She’s moving to the Southeast to be with her boyfriend, the gallery director of the May Gallery & Residency. Maya has been in Los Angeles for three and a half years after what feels like an incredibly long life spent traveling and learning. Los Angeles is one of those places Maya never considered or imagined she’d move to but it was necessary that she come here and it will never not be a part of her. “I’m always going to come back here. To spend time with friends, go to the desert, and work with people on creative projects here,” she says of the city.

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Maya grew up in New York City. She is a first generation American (Her mother is from Colombia; her father is Hungarian.) and she has always had an artistic inclination. “I pretty much was drawing all the time,” she says. “I used to fall asleep with a pencil, which I would hide from my parents. I would draw out my dreams on the walls in the morning with my secret pencil.”

She attended LaGuardia High School, an art high school in New York City. “It’s the Fame school,” she clarifies. She notes that this was the first of many, many schools for her. “I’ve been to a lot of schools. I went to Cooper Union to study fine art and then I went to Hunter College. Later on, Harvard and CalArts. I graduated and I wanted to get out of America so I went to Europe. I actually had an apprenticeship in the Arctic where I was learning ice sculpting at the Ice Hotel. It was an amazing adventure.”

“I was adventuring through Europe and ended up in Paris. I didn’t think I would live there for long because I didn’t speak French but I ended up getting a free studio space and a job right away, and started a fashion company with a friend. We began primarily with costuming and started a line called Mystic Funk Circus. We put on these eccentric performances in public spaces like a huge fashion show in the Paris Metro with twenty-five different performers. It was a totally crazy and beautiful scene.”

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While in Paris, Maya met a woman working in fashion who stepped in as a mentor of sorts. The opportunity was a complete surprise and actually somewhat surreal. “She hired me to be her assistant at Ralph Lauren of all places. It was a really corporate environment. It was strange to go from a super arty life to the corporate fashion world: though grateful for the experience, I realized quickly it wasn’t my scene at all.”

“So, I saved some money and travelled to India for six months to sort a lot of things out,” Maya continues. “That was amazing and life-changing. I was introduced to a lot of spiritual practices, along with incredible experiences and major shifts of perspective.”

Maya ended up traveling back through Europe and even entertained the idea of fulfilling dual citizenship in Hungary (she is now a dual citizen). She followed an opportunity through AmeriCorps to be a teacher and artist in residence in New Mexico. “It was a really great situation where artists taught and worked at the new arts charter High School,” she says.

Through a good friend and poet she had met while in India, Maya became interested in Harvard’s Arts-In-Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “She convinced me to apply and got in. I went from India to New Mexico to Harvard.”

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Harvard introduced Maya to many things and she certainly learned a lot. The most important thing to happen to her was completely unexpected: she discovered animation. “That was it,” she explains. “After all of these life experiences and trying out fashion, art and film, I found I could put all of my interests and thoughts into this one place. I don’t know why but I was really snobby about animation: I never knew you could do such beautiful things with it. What I had seen was so commercial that it never seemed like art to me: it was just junk. Through time I’ve learned about so many awesome animation artists. [Editor’s Note: You can see her website for links of animators she likes.] I now approach it as an art form.”

This experience was in 2006 and it was a complete paradigm shift for her, but it seems that the art world was changing too.

“All of a sudden you were going to art fairs and museums and there would be animations,” she notes. “Even the art world was shifting their perspective, accepting it more, whereas when I was younger I don’t remember seeing it valued in that sort of cultural context.”

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“A moment that really changed things for me was seeing William Kentridge’s animation “Felix in Exile” at MoMA.  It was moving and profound and it was animation and it was fine art. I moved back to New York after that and was doing animation on my own. I won a few artist residencies and was teaching art and animation through different non-profits. I started making music videos and various little freelance projects–and I realized I needed time. I thought that going through an MFA program would give me space, time, training, and community.”

Around this time, Maya was introduced to CalArts, a school she had never considered nor had she had a particular interest in. “There’s the New York/LA rivalry,” she says with a laugh. “At the time, like a lot of New Yorkers, I could not ever fathom living in LA.”

“I applied to CalArts and I got in right away,” she adds. “They were the first people to get back to me. In my opinion, it’s the most innovative and exciting  animation program in the United States so I hitched my zebra-striped wagon and decided to head west.”

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Maya finished her MFA in May of 2012, a time that she describes as being similar to having been “shot out of the womb.” Maya hit the ground running and was signed to 6 Point Media, a Los Angeles based commercial agency that represents lots of animators locally and beyond. One thing she didn’t know was if she was definitely staying in LA or moving on: she was open to relocating.

“I was planning to stay here but I always thought I would move back to New York and would keep coming back to LA for work since I have such a big network of friends and collaborators. I feel ready to leave LA–but I don’t want to leave the community I have now.”

She also finds that place is not necessarily important at this point in time because technology allows for flexibility in location. She finds that regardless of how near or far her collaborators are she is still communicating with them via Skype, emails, and with images of her work.

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This said, Maya has a unique way of working and it is certainly hands on. It’s a combination of planning and experimenting with the medium. “The process involves doing a lot of drawings, cutting a lot of paper, and playing under the camera. I don’t like to storyboard too much: I like to get the skeleton sense of what the story is and then I like to let the medium tell me. It’s exciting to see what happens under the camera.  Accidents happen in composition and lighting and it may tell me something else that I didn’t plan. Keeping some element of surprise makes the work really interesting. Like Steve Jobs said, ”Creativity is just connecting things.”

“I have an overall sense of direction with what I’m doing–but I like to keep the process a bit open-ended and playful—pareidolic.”

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While working here, Los Angeles has had an interesting effect: it’s made her work more.  “In a weird way, I’m more productive here. New York is much more social while LA is much more introverted, likely as a result from the car culture. Things are more separated. I tend to be more of a hermit in Los Angeles, which I don’t know is a good thing. But, I get more work done. The weather can sometimes be a big tease too: I find myself wanting it to be cold out and rainy and gloomy so I have a reason to be inside.”

She also finds that Los Angeles has helped to mold how she works. She’s more easy-going and definitely has been influenced by the physical environment. “I was joking with a friend that I came here from New York as a broken piece of glass and then LA turned me into beach glass: my hard jagged edges got sanded and softer. I’m a little more relaxed and less high anxiety. A little bit more California cool, in the general sense. The wildlife here, the flowers and the fruits, the hummingbirds, the coyotes, have definitely permeated my work ethic. There is so much beauty in the land. LA is this mix of beautiful wildness and then it’s contrasted with these concrete freeways and suburban architecture and strip malls. It’s a combination of the really ugly and the really beautiful.”

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Maya has also had some huge opportunities while living here. For example, she landed a gig animating a music video for TV On The Radio’s 2012 album, Nine Types of Light. She was one of 10 directors who was asked to create a video for the album. All 10 videos were then compiled into a feature length film called “Nine Types of Light” which was later nominated for a 2012 Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video. The chance to work on the project partly came from her Brooklyn roots, where Maya had first become friends with band members Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone–but they were unfamiliar with her work until they traveled out West during the summer of 2011 to work on their new album. At the time she was living on a ½ acre of land out in the desert off of Route 126 where she and her partner at the time would frequently throw music shows, have film screenings, and hold various other art happenings. “I invited them to our final event there which included an animation screening,” she says. “Kyp played music from his upcoming album by the fire, the stars were out, coyotes were howling, it was a magical, beautiful night. Tunde ended up seeing this animation short that I created that year called Phosphena and he said he really liked it. A few months later, I got a phone call from Tunde asking me to direct a video for them.”

This serendipitous event led to a fairly high level job for her. Was the experience unique to Los Angeles though? Not necessarily.  “There are a few creative vortexes in the United States and I think that’s the kind of thing that happens in those creative meridians. It could have happened in New York but I wasn’t living in New York. I was also living in this funky house with a ½ acre of property in the high desert: where Mexican cowboys would ride horses to the local taco truck, that certainly doesn’t happen in New York. (laughing) In LA, that is not so unheard of.  In general, I believe that your art expands to fit the space that you are given. Some places are better than others for people to come together, too.”

She does admit one thing: “That was a specific LA party, though. I could not have had that in Brooklyn.”

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Maya is not too sad about leaving Los Angeles. In fact, she’s looking forward to her next adventure in New Orleans. She’s very confident that there will always be a relationship between her and Los Angeles since so much of her work and creative community is here. “The way I see it is that I will probably come to LA like three times a year for various reasons,” she explains. “I have so many friends here that I will be back, for sure. I don’t think I’ll move back unless its for work opportunities. I’m not going to say never but its not in my plans…but it also wasn’t in my plans to move to New Orleans.”

“In my head, I always think about going back to New York at some point. I just happened to fall in love with someone in New Orleans.”

For more on Maya, check out her website here. Her next project has her travelling to Odense, Denmark this summer to team up with the Hans Christian Anderson Museum and Archives to study the paper-cut works of Anderson. She’ll be creating a children’s book and animation based on one of his fairytales and inspired by his cut-paper folk art. You can also find her most recent film–Pareidolia–which just screened at the 2013 Ann Arbor Film Festival and won the Barbara Aronofsky Latham Award for Emerging Experimental Video Artist: view it here. The password is Maya.

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