Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
When South Seattle native Maya Milton was a little girl, she poured herself into two passions: art and dancing. Born with sickle cell anemia, she was otherwise generally a healthy child, until an overdose of medication she was taking to manage her condition resulted in a stroke. Unable to recover her ability to dance, Milton funneled her considerable creative drive into making art. “So, from there, I focused all of my attention, all of my love, all of my everything on art and I grew it. And it was almost like I was raising a kid, [how I nurtured] my knowledge of arts and [how I stretched] my awareness of my surroundings — I threw all of that into my art,” she recalls.
A self-described introvert, Milton discovered that her creative expression ultimately helped to facilitate connections with her peers “on a very human level,” and her art flourished and took form during her years attending first Franklin High School and then Seattle Central College. “In college, I decided that I was going to get out of my shell and actually become a human who could talk to people and could relate to people,” she says. Milton joined the college activities board, which plans, organizes and hosts campus events. “During this experience,” Milton notes, “I’m creating art for the events and I’m given a bunch of opportunities to use my artwork to communicate with people on even another level.”
Now 24, Milton is a working artist with rising aspirations and a very succinct mission: “I’m just making art. I make art all the time for whoever wants or needs it in their life.” What makes her artwork particularly satisfying to her is that she uses it to empower people of color — African-American/Black women, specifically. “I work to empower women of color to just be comfortable in their own skin. No matter who you are, you belong here. You belong in this world. You belong. You are perfect with all of your flaws and imperfections. And I think that that’s a big part of why I create art,” says Milton.
Though Milton has dabbled in various artistic mediums — including pen and ink to create highly detailed artwork early on in her artistic career — she is currently focused primarily on painting larger works on canvas. She shows her paintings in local galleries, at art walks, and at multimedia events for performing and visual artists of all types. She has found success promoting and selling her art through her Instagram presence and her website, Maya’s Art.
Her own experience dealing with health crises and overcoming shyness to shine as an artist have given Milton a unique perspective on female self-realization and agency, and this is reflected in her boldly colorful portraiture of powerful, regal female figures. “I think one thing that really changed the way I processed things was having the stroke. It really opened my eyes: This experience here in this world is something to not take for granted. [You must] steadily live your best life on earth and do what you think is best for you,” she advises.
Speaking of advice, I ask Milton how she would counsel parents to best support their kids to pursue their passions — creative, academic, activist or otherwise. She credits her own parents for being extremely attentive to her own budding interests as a youth. “Both of my parents were very, very supportive of me and always supplied me with the things that I needed to become the person that I wanted to become. [That showed] they wanted to be there for me, that they loved me and that they cared about my dreams. And they still do.”
What’s next for this thoughtful young artist? In addition to working to expand the presence of her artwork in galleries (and eventually museums!), both locally and in other states, Milton has begun the planning process for opening her own art gallery. There she can present works by “people who have the same message to send to the world [that I do].” This message centers on empowering women to celebrate themselves.
Hers is a hopeful vision for a more loving and tolerant world. “What the world needs now is the love of women. I feel like we need more love, mama love. We need more of that loving rock, telling us to get our [act] together,” says Milton. “When I feel concern that we’re going backwards in society, I remind myself that marches are happening and protests are happening everywhere — I myself have participated in [them]. I think that those are huge signs of hope, to know there are people out there who are continuously fighting for what’s right and fighting for what they believe in.”