Born in Groningen but now residing in Amsterdam, Maarten Léon creates surrealist illustrations inspired by his feelings, thoughts, and the occasional song lyric. By combining vintage photography with graphic design, he conjures otherworldly landscapes and fascinatingly bizarre scenes. We chatted with him about growing up, emotional self-reflection, his toolkit of techniques, and the role humour plays in his work.
You live and work in Amsterdam. What does the city mean to you and how does it inspire you?
I grew up in Groningen, a relatively small town with lots of students in the north of the Netherlands. It’s a nice place to live, but at some point, I needed something new as I just had the feeling I had seen everything. The fact that I can discover new places every weekend here makes Amsterdam an awesome place to live and be creative. Apart from that, you meet so many different kinds of people on the street. The people and the city itself seem to take themselves a bit too seriously sometimes, making them both somewhat absurd and funny.
From vintage photography to reduced forms, your works are a combination of various techniques. Tell us about your artistic process. How do you create your works from start to end?
The starting point varies according to my mood. Sometimes I have a deep need to make myself heard. Other times, I just find it funny to make a fish that doesn’t want to get wet. I often come up with series. I’ve made a series on my thoughts, wishes, and whatnot. Lately, I’ve been inspired by song lyrics (“Don’t you worry about me”: Moniker – Ocean Blue). Then I search old photographs for people who best represent these lyrics.
I like it when the final compositions become a new illustration in which various different forms and images are completely integrated into one another. Humour’s an important part of that: I often try to relativise things with humour.
You’ve previously described your work as an ode to becoming an adult and emotional self-reflection. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
That remark comes from a time when I was working on the series “The ABC of Me” and doesn’t carry as much weight now as it did back then. It was a period when, following an anxiety disorder, I got my life back on track and thought a lot about who I was and where I wanted to go. This also affected many aspects of my student life—love, friendships, grades, and having too much time on my hands. For example, getting drunk with friends or falling in love both left me with a surreal feeling. This provided me with inspiration and my designs were, among other things, a means of getting my thoughts in order. I’m now 27 and regularly ask myself when adulthood begins.
In many of your designs, multiple characters interact with one another. Can you tell us the story of the characters in one of your JUNIQE designs?
One design that means a lot to me in terms of the story is “B is for Balance”. In this work, my aim was to balance different elements that are important to me: ambition, health, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones. Priorities vary from situation to situation, of course. But when these elements interact smoothly, I feel as happy and light as the bird depicted. Maybe it’s more a case of juggling than balancing.
Which of your imagined worlds would you most like to visit?
Diving into a large glass of red wine seems pretty cool to me. Maybe not the three of us all at once though—the glass wouldn’t be big enough.
Text: Laura Veneklaas
Translation: Nicholas Potter