A peek into the life of an artist in Zagreb

Croatian artist Maya Beus chats with Time Out about life, creativity, and art

Written by
Lara Rasin

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up," said Pablo Picasso.

This predicament is one that Zagreb-based artist Maya Beus has overcome with flair. An art lover from a young age, Maya has been creating and drawing her whole life. She crafted her passion into a profession over ten years ago and hasn't looked back. In that time, she has accumulated an impressive client list that includes the likes of Oscar de la Renta, St. Regis Hotels, and LVMH.

Maya Beus
Maya BeusMaya on location for St. Regis

We chatted with Maya about everything from her artistic journey - which is one of pure perseverance, talent, and hard work - to her go-to spots in Zagreb, her favourite paintings and creators, and more.

Immerse yourself in the life of an artist in Zagreb, and read on for Maya's firsthand account of building a creative career in Croatia's capital city.

On becoming an artist

Could you explain your path to becoming a professional artist?

I was always drawing as a kid. In the 80s, Croatia had travelling book salesmen. That's where my parents got a trilogy of books on the history of art. The third one covered everything from the Renaissance to the Modern Age - and that was my favourite book ever. As a child, I would open it and just stare. I grew up with it. My dad tells me when I was very, very little that I also liked Picasso, but I don't quite remember that phase [laughing].

Art was always around me. My dad painted a little bit, and my mom used to draw. She once wanted to be a fashion designer, and that steeped into my life as well. As a kid, I used to ask my mom, "Mom can you please draw me little red riding hood?" And she would draw this long-legged, thin 70s model with beetle eyes, wearing a little red scarf and a mini skirt. Then I'd say, "That's not little red riding hood. Who is this lady?!" [laughing]. 

I went on to take some fashion design classes in high school. For a long time, I actually thought I was going to be a fashion designer. But at some point, I realised that it wasn't so much that I like to make clothes, but rather imagine clothes.

Maya Beus
Maya BeusA commission of Maya's for Oscar de la Renta

That was during the late 90s, early 2000s. At the time, there wasn't much work in fashion illustration. It had a sort of renaissance in the last ten years, but before that, there was very little work in the area. After high school, I went to Australia for a gap year trying to figure it all out. Then, I enrolled in a study of graphic design in Zagreb, but... Quite soon I realised I kind of hated it. I didn't like what I was doing. One way or another, though, I finished the programme.

I moved to London around 2009. I found out there were nude drawing classes just across the street from my flat, and I started going each week. Quite soon, I realised, "Oh, that was the problem. It's not that I just want to be creative; I want to draw!" So, in London I realised that drawing is what I was meant to do.

Once I figured it out, I drew, drew, and drew some more. My career took years. It took a few years to get an agent, a few years to get established, a few years to go full time... That's the short version of how I got here. About 20 years put into three minutes [laughing]. 

What are some challenges you faced in those 20 years of career development?

I think this is common for most artists, but I didn't realise that the art part was only 30% of what I'd be doing. Being a freelance artist equals being a business, and I wasn't ready for it right away. I wasn't mentally prepared, I didn't have all the knowledge needed, and I wasn't ready in terms of energy and time.

Mistakes were made, and huge obstacles were faced. It took a lot of accepting that I would have to deal with so much marketing. It might sound simple, but these were years in the process for me. It was a long time before I accepted that selling is a massive part of my job and being a working artist.

What about experiences that have been gratifying?

I would say that most of what I do is gratifying because I can create emotions within people and bring them joy.

Artists can transport people to another place and bring certain feelings into their lives. Whether it's finding joy or beauty, or even helping them process certain things.

And this might sound trivial, but even just making their space more beautiful and enjoyable is a huge aspect of what art is. 

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A post shared by Maya Beus (@mayabeus)

I love the impact we can have in people's lives.

A piece of advice for those hoping to become artists?

There's a sort of romantic atmosphere online that you can easily live out your passion, but making it sound that simple is bullshit. I recently saw someone post, "I started out not even being able to draw, and I made it!" and that's just not true. There's not being able to draw in the sense of struggling to transfer something from your head onto paper - and then there's not being good at it yet. It's a lie that it's easy or that anyone can do it. Anyone can try to do it - and I wouldn't discourage anyone from trying - but not everyone will be able to.

People rush into it before they're good enough and then feel discouraged when nobody buys or shows interest in their art.

I would say to anyone wanting to become a working artist: it's possible. It can be done. But you need to get to a certain level first. Give yourself time and be patient. Really work on your skill. Get help any way you can, and don't try to figure it out on your own. When you see someone doing what you want to do, ask them how they did it. Invest in yourself and in knowledge. Read books. Take advantage of online courses.

Right now, especially, we don't have to spend $2000 to go to Milan for workshops; we can pay $200 and follow online at our convenience. You do lose a little by being online, but the price and the range of offers you can get make up for it. Things became very accessible thanks to COVID.

After a while, when you have a certain amount of material that you can work with, then you can make an online shop, get an agent, and pitch yourself. But you have to be ready before you do that and it can take time.

On being an artist

How does a day in your life as an artist look?

It's a bit different now since COVID started. Before COVID, I used to go to a studio that I shared with friends from university who are in an art collective called OAZA. They are a group of designers who do a lot of exhibitions, curating, and cultural work. I loved going to their studio because being an artist can be very lonely. Since the pandemic started, I've been working from my apartment. I'm now home alone a lot - I go to the gym just to be among people!

I try to wake up earlyish, around 7-7:30 AM. I like watching talk shows like Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, and The Daily Show, so I put one on YouTube while I make coffee. Then I do what I call my drawing exercises. They last ideally about 30 minutes, and that's when I practice a specific subject - either an area that I'm trying to improve at the moment or something just for me. So my day begins with Colbert, drawing, and coffee [laughing]. After, I check emails and the news and then start working. I have my breakfast later, around 11.

maya beus
Maya BeusWhere the magic happens: Maya's home studio

When it's winter, I try to go to the gym earlier, while there's still daylight, to be among people like I said. My job also involves a lot of sitting, which is why I initially started going to the gym. I wasn't trying to gain or lose weight, but just stay functional and away from the backaches! After the gym, I continue working. If I'm feeling sociable, I go see friends at night. I'm living like I'm 20-something in that sense [laughing]. My life can be very casual. Working for yourself allows for a degree of flexibility to work around other people's schedules.

On some days, if the deadline is super close, nothing else exists, though. I just work all day on finishing the project.

When I used to work at the studio, that was great. I'd get there around 9 or 10 AM, draw, talk to people, have coffee with them... Sometime next year, I'll probably be back in a coworking space for a few days a week.

Why is it that you choose to continue creating art each day?

I'm compelled to. I feel a need to do it every day. I really just enjoy the process of drawing. What I do is try to create a life that allows me to follow that compulsion. If I had a job somewhere else, I wouldn't have as much energy and time to sit and draw. So, I had to make this my job!

It's a calling - it's something that I am. Last year, when COVID started, I had a lot of business activities stop. The thought crossed my mind, "Should I give up on this?" But I realised that giving up on this would mean giving up on being me. 

Aside from personalised commissions that individuals can contact you for*, what are all the different types of art you work on now?

Most of my work used to be through my agent. It was for different communication agencies, when art directors would get in touch with me or my agent about creating art for their brochures, posters, or books. But agent-based work is not always sustainable business-wise, because at times I can have a lot of work through her - but other times nothing. So I developed a bunch of stuff on my own, too. 

I do workshops, for instance, but because of COVID these became super rare. I did two last year and none in the meantime. But I love doing workshops!

maya beus
Maya BeusMaya doing live drawings at an event: What the crowd sees
maya beus
Maya BeusWhat Maya sees

I work with many different clients of various backgrounds, from fashion to travel and design. This year, for example, I created a series of 50 crystals for deco crystal cards for a publisher in Australia. The second big job that I did isn't public yet, so I can't reveal much, but it's a series of portraits in watercolour. Earlier this year, an interior design company also contacted me about using my art for royalties. 

I also finally started selling originals on my Etsy and my website recently. That's still getting going. It's not profitable yet. For now, I'm selling works that I have already created. Because I draw all the time, I already have so many pieces. 

maya beus
Maya Beus"Akt" ("Act"), a Maya Beus original

Overall, on the business side, it's super important for an artist to find many, many streams of income. The year before COVID, about 30% of my income came from events, and that area was taking off for me. I was expecting it to go up in 2020, and then it just came to a stop. Things can happen as we've all experienced, and when you go into business, you have to be prepared.

Do you have a go-to fix for creative blocks?

I'm lucky in terms of creative blocks [knocks on wood] that I haven't had one for years.

That's thanks to therapy. I used to have huge creative blocks during which I wouldn't be able to do anything for months. When that happens, your growth and career can really suffer. So, I went into therapy when I was about 30 and said, "I can't fix this on my own, I tried, and it's not happening." Within months, I was able to fix it and not really have a problem again.

Of course, I think it's very personal for everyone and varies from individual to individual. 

Sometimes, I think creative blocks serve a purpose - it can be your mind or inner world telling you, "Ok, slow down for a second." I think there's a lot of pressure in the culture to be constantly making new things, being original, creating something unbelievable. And that's just not realistic. I think aiming for that can be very destructive. Even if you achieve it, the question is, at what cost?

So not every creative block is bad, but if someone is struggling with it a lot, try speaking to a good therapist. It can work wonders.

On standout art

Could you tell us a few of the most memorable pieces you've been commissioned to create?

One memorable project includes the portraits that haven't come out yet, so I can't say much on that - sorry! - other than I worked on them for months, and I'm very excited to be able to talk about them. I'm thrilled with that project, and I think it pushed me to the next level.

Another of my favourites, especially since commissions like this don't happen often, was for City Center One, a mall in Zagreb. They celebrated ten years in Croatia in 2016, for which they commissioned me to make a series of fashion illustrations. They asked me to pick and draw one iconic dress from every year that they've been in Croatia. So I got to choose a sort of "Iconic Dress of the Year" for each year from 2006-2016. That was awesome for me.

You know when you have a bunch of knowledge that you can't really talk about with anyone - and then a project comes up that you can use it for? Sort of an aha moment that this is your time to show off your "useless" knowledge. Well, for me, I could finally tell people what the most iconic dress of 2008 was! [Laughing]

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Maya BeusScenes from Maya's City Centre exhibition

I loved it! City Centre was especially great because my dress illustrations were published on giant boards, about 2.5 metres tall, and exhibited in the middle of the mall. People were really affected by it, and there was a huge opening - for which I was super nervous, like a little kid [laughing]. But I loved it. That was a great commission; it was so specifically made for me!

Maya Beus
Maya BeusVisitors were treated to Maya's remarkable art between shopping trips at City Centre

Then there's the work that I did for St. Regis because I got to travel, draw, and meet a bunch of people. All of my favourite things! That project was top notch.

Maya beus
Maya BeusThe life of a successful Zagreb-based artist: St. Regis meetings
Maya beus
Maya BeusMaya's take on a hotel lobby for St. Regis

What are some of your favourite, and least favourite, motifs to draw?

My favourite is definitely the human figure. Usually, it's female, but lately, I've been doing male as well. Just yesterday, I was going through a bunch of GQ magazines looking for inspiration for male fashion. I don't see why there's not the same amount of work on male figures in fashion illustration as female. Especially lately, there's been a lot of really good male fashion.

But, either way, the human figure is my number one. Figures have always come easily for me, and they're my favourite way to express myself. I like portraits as well, but I'm not on the same level as I am for figures. 

Maya Beus
Maya BeusAnother work of Maya's for Oscar de la Renta

My least favourite are probably animals - don't get me wrong, I love animals - but I never get a need to paint them. I can and will do it, but it's not my favourite way to express myself. 

I also like painting exteriors, products, items of clothing such as shoes, even furniture...

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Do you have any favourite styles of art?

In terms of painting, impressionism is huge for me. 

Claude Monet
Wiki CommonsThe name of the style "Impressionism" is derived from painting title "Impression, soleil levant" (1872) by French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926), founder of the impressionist movement

Japanese painting and Chinese painting are a major influence as well. Their minimalism, how simple and direct they are, and clean. One of my favourite artists ever is Hokusai.

Petrusbarbygere via Wiki CommonsA work by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the artist behind internationally iconic print "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"

Also, the American style of illustration from the late 1900s and the golden age of it through the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. I love that. 

I love the history of art in general, and I think there's something everywhere to learn from.

What's a work of art that is particularly important to you?

This might be a cliché, but I just love the Winged Victory of Samothrace. It's a Greek sculpture near the entrance of the Louvre showing the goddess Nike. I've loved that sculpture since I was little. 

Thomas Ulrich / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)"The Winged Victory of Samothrace" shows Nike, the Greek goddess who heralded victory. Built most likely in the 2nd century BC by an unknown master, the statue today guards the Louvre Museum's Daru staircase

Who are some of the artists you've been inspired by?

David Downton is a massive inspiration for me. At the time when I was starting, he was one of the only working fashion illustrators, and I really loved his style. I think he's really a technically good artist, which I love. I love people who work on their skills. 

There's a term, crtač, for which there is no good English word. The closest would maybe be "draftsman" or "drawer." These are people who, and they don't even have to be painters or illustrators, but their drawing skills are just... Beyond.

There's also René Gruau.

Then there are a bunch of American illustrators who are just amazing, like Bernie Fuchs. I sometimes go to Pinterest, find one of his drawings, and stare at it! I just look at the lines.

As for some modern artists, I admire their work because they are going in different directions. You need a lot of courage to draw like that because it's not very commercial. It's not easily sellable and not everyone can get away with it. These are people like Jackie Marshall (@jackyblue__ on Instagram).

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Even though it looks simple, you have to be really good to do it

What art is featured in your own home?

On my walls, there is almost exclusively my art - if I won’t put it on my walls who will?!

And, I have an illustration by a fellow Croatian illustrator Ana Kovačić (@sveta.ana on Instagram) whose work I love!

On travel and Croatia

Where in the world do you feel most creative?

I would say in London. Partially because it's, well, London - it's very conducive to being creative. 

But I probably also see it that way because of the time in my life when I lived there. A lot was happening in me then.

Maya Beus
Maya BeusMaya during her London years

Creativity is very much an inner job. Where you are is not crucial, but it can help. The energy of a place can push you along and take you with it. But, on the other hand, it can also bring you down and kill your buzz a bit.

Where in the world do you feel most at home?

Zagreb. I wasn't born here, but I moved really early. I'm originally from a really small town in Dalmatia called Vrgorac.

Zvonimir Barisin/PIXSELLMaya's hometown of Vrgorac, located 40 kilometres south of Makarska

I moved to Zagreb when I was barely 14. I've been living here on and off for 25 years. But Zagreb is definitely my place now.

Where do you go to relax in Zagreb?

Somewhere green!

It's either Jarun Lake, Sljeme, or the Sava riverbank.

What about Zagreb inspires you?

I find inspiration in fashion around the city. I recently started a Zagreb "Street Style Saturdays" series on Instagram. Every week, I try to find one good example of someone dressed with true imagination - someone who forgoes the neutral colours, experiments, and isn't afraid to show individualism. A new series post goes up each Saturday (along with my usual art posts and stories)!

I'm open to a submission from people if I like it, so shoot me a message if you live in Zagreb and have an out-of-the-ordinary fashion sense. Also, I love interacting with people, so feel free to comment and message even if it's not related to the series!

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Your favourite cafés in Zagreb are...

One of my favourite spots in Zagreb for the past few years is café Jolie Petite Patisserie. I'm there about twice a week. I love having coffee and a BLT there. It's my favourite café, and it has really good coffee.

If I'm in the city centre, I love Cogito Coffee, Quahwa on Teslina, or Program on Martićeva. They all have great coffee.

I don't drink milk, and haven't for years, so if a place doesn't serve plant-based milk, I can only have an espresso. And a lot of places aren't as good with espressos as they would like to believe. When I lived in Vancouver, I worked in a coffee roastery, so I learned good coffee there and have been spoiled since then [laughing].

Your favourite restaurants in Zagreb are...

I'm a sushi person. My favourite sushi spot in Zagreb is Evergreen on Ilica; it's a comparatively affordable place. Vancouver spoiled me for sushi too. It has a huge Asian community, and sushi places there are like bakeries in Zagreb: there's one every 50 metres. 

I've also been really into the Indian place Namaste lately!

Then, Maslina Pizzeria. It might not be super gourmet, but it's just classic and always good. They have nice thin crusts, good sizes, good ingredients, and I love it for a pizza.

The best museums in Zagreb are...

The National Museum of Modern Art [Moderna galerija] is really great. I don't love the Museum of Contemporary Art [Muzej suvremene umjestnosti] as a modern art museum. Some smaller galleries, in general, can have better programmes than museums. For example, Galerija Kranjčar. Galerija Greta was also an excellent small gallery for emerging artists, but it's closed now because of COVID.

Then, it's touristy, but the concept is well done and fun - the Museum of Broken Relationships [Muzej prekinutih veza]. It's not high art, but it will give you something to remember and talk about. And that's kind of what art is about, making you think and feel things. 

This spring, the Technical Museum [Tehnički muzej] had a fantastic exhibition on Croatian costume designer Ika Škomrlj. She used to do costumes for TV and theatre.

Would you recommend checking out any street art in Croatia?

ReThink Sisak is an awesome street art event. They do massive murals every year.

I first noticed it because Croatian artist Tea Jurisic [@tea_jurisic on Instagram] did a great mural for them. She does wonderful street art in general, and I find her a great illustrator and artist as well.

Your favourite Croatian food and drink are...

I like a lot of Dalmatian stuff. That taste formed in my childhood. Fish, blitva [chard], pašticada [a braised beef dish], things that I used to eat at home. These meals are the best when made in the house, not at restaurants. There's nothing like when your mom makes them, or you eat them at an at-home celebration with friends and family.

I also love štrukli [dough filled with cheese], which I discovered when I first moved to Zagreb. We didn't have that in Dalmatia back then, so finding out about it was awesome. I usually make it or find someone's mother to make it [laughing]. 

As for drinks, I'm a gin person. I know good gin and the Croatian Old Pilot's Gin is the best in the world!

Your favourite place in Croatia is...

Vis. The entire island of Vis is a dream. The nature is wonderful. I love the energy of the people. There's an amazing café-slash-museum-slash-wine-and-cheese-bar with godly coffee on the island called Mvseum. Vis is just different.

Every visitor to Croatia should try...

The food, definitely. But it's best if you can go to someone's house and try it there! [Laughing]

If you're in the south, then do seafood and wine. Up north, go sweet because the cakes and pastries are delicious. Globalisation did its thing in Croatia, and there are a lot of brownies and muffins around... So try to find the traditional stuff.

Croatia is a place for...

Family. One of the reasons I decided to stay in Croatia and not move out - and I've lived in other places in the world which I've loved - is family.

In general, Croatia is not too expensive, and the pressure to earn is not as big as in, say, Berlin, London, Vancouver, New York... You don't have to make this huge amount of money here. You can live pretty comfortably with mid-level salaries. It's also safe in terms of crime and life in general. Everything is close by. From Zagreb, you can be at the seaside in just a few hours. Real estate prices are increasing, but they're still not that bad compared to other cities.

So, it's great for family life, especially for young families. 

A travel tip for visitors to Croatia is...

Try to connect with someone local to show you around.

People are actually very willing to do it. Croatians will generally try to show you the best of everything. They'll take you to a nice place, show you a terrific local food restaurant, and it won't just be the touristy things.

So, try to use the power of social media to get in touch with a local. People are very hospitable, and everyone speaks English, so just give it a go!

*The author of this article has commissioned art - and loved it! - from Maya in the past.

maya beus
Maya BeusTo buy or commission a one-of-a-kind Maya masterpiece, head to her Etsy shop (MayaIllustrationShop) or website (mayabeus.com)

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