Maya Kuvaja Wins 2024 Common Ground Country Fair Poster Contest

June 1, 2024
Maya Kuvaja
Maya Kuvaja, a mixed media artist based in rural Bridgton, Maine, won the 2024 Common Ground Country Fair poster contest. The animal depicted in the work, an owl, is a recurring subject for Kuvaja. Photo courtesy of Kuvaja

By Holli Cederholm 

Based in Bridgton, Maine, mixed media artist Maya Kuvaja draws inspiration from “living in the country.” From the surrounding woods, mountains and lakes to her organic garden and window-side bird feeders, there is no shortage of natural subject matter for her artwork.

Kuvaja grew up in Saco, Maine, not far from the Saco River and the Atlantic Ocean. As a child, she delighted in her frequent visits to Scarborough Marsh, where she would observe the diversity of shore birds. She is inspired by the form, details and colors that nature and especially birds provide — and they often appear in her work. Kuvaja says that birds have “always been in the background and always a part of my life and always kind of a fascinating thing to watch around me.”

She reflects that her mother said she has been painting and drawing since she was a toddler. Art has “always been with me.” Kuvaja adds that she always knew art is what she wanted to do — and has pursued art academically and integrated it into her daily life. When Kuvaja is on a hike, she is observing the world around her, often taking reference photos for later inspiration.

She also finds inspiration right at home, gravitating towards common backyard birds as her muses, including sparrows, chickadees and red-winged blackbirds. “I love doing specifically Maine birds,” says Kuvaja. She is moved by the ones that appear in our daily lives, seeing them as “a window into nature.”

Crows and owls make regular appearances in her art, and Kuvaja notes that these birds, in particular, elicit stories of human connection from her audience. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I have this story about a crow that I feed that comes back or an owl that I always see in my backyard.’” Kuvaja has her own stories: barn owls wake her at two or three in the morning, hooting around her house. She says, “It’s been really fun to see them all around here.”

For her entry to the 2024 Common Ground Country Fair poster design contest, Kuvaja thought a barred owl paired with an apple tree was a “natural fit,” as she can imagine an owl hunting for mice in an orchard. She says, “I wanted to integrate something to do with farming with the natural world because I feel like they kind of come together in harmony.”

2024 CGCF Poster big CHOICE
The 2024 “Owl with Apples” Common Ground Country Fair poster and other Fair merchandise is available to purchase at MOFGA’s online store.

Kuvaja has been attending the Common Ground Country Fair since childhood, when the Fair was located in Windsor, Maine, but her “Owl with Apples” design was her first submission to the poster contest.

Kuvaja works at Casco Bay Frames in Portland and has framed, and admired, “many, many” Fair posters over the years. Her affinity for backyard birds shines through in her appreciation of “Raven with Blackberries” by Morgan Cameron, which won the contest for the 2022 design, with T-shirts selling out at the Fair that year. Since the launch of the 2024 poster, Kuvaja has framed some of her own design — and signed them upon request. “It’s so exciting,” she says.

“Owl with Apples” started as acrylic paint on white matte board. Kuvaja first sketched an outline, erasing and re-drawing to get the angle of the apple branch and the perch of the owl just right. She added a few details as she went, before layering on loose brush strokes and more detail.

Kuvaja says she can often “get lost in the details,” painting every feather. However, she knew that this piece needed to be easily replicated, as a poster and T-shirt design, and therefore didn’t get as granular as she usually does.

Snowy Egret Maya Kuvaja
Maya Kuvaja’s 2024 piece “Snowy Egret” is an example of her signature medium, acrylic and collage on birch plywood. She is drawn to the idea of giving a second life to materials, such as discarded books and paper ephemera, in her artwork. Photo courtesy of Kuvaja

While Kuvaja has a bachelor’s degree in painting from what is now Maine College of Art in Portland, she works predominantly in mixed media, combining realism and observational illustration of nature and wildlife with collage. She is drawn to “the idea of recycling and reusing discarded materials.” In her small studio, shelves of antique and discarded books — old history texts, encyclopedias and works of literature — and boxes of maps and other paper ephemera gleaned from the Goodwill hem in her work table and easel. As she embarks on a new project, Kuvaja “can dig through a box of little bits and pieces.” She relishes the “element of discovery” and also the possibility of giving new life to materials that would otherwise be recycled or thrown away. “These unexpected things happen,” she adds.

Each collage starts with birch plywood as a base. It “holds up to my process better,” says Kuvaja, reflecting on all the layers of her work. During the collage phase, she juxtaposes scraps of disparate materials — newspaper advertisements, for instance, may mingle with playing cards and nautical navigational tools. The paper is set in place with acrylic media, and she then seals the collage before adding background color. Once dry, she paints her subject matter, whether a blooming dandelion or a swimming loon, atop the pieced-together backdrop.

“I like to keep it open to interpretation,” says Kuvaja, regarding any meaning or symbolism of her work. “One person might look at it one way, and one person might see a different story.”

The Common Ground Country Fair is scheduled for September 20, 21 and 22, 2024. Merchandise, from T-shirts to aprons, will feature Kuvaja’s design. In the meantime, the 2024 Fair poster is available at MOFGA’s Online Country Store. To see more of Kuvaja’s artwork, visit her website at mayakuvaja.weebly.com and Instagram @maya_kuvaja.

This article was originally published in the summer 2024 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

Interested in sustainable living? MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair is a celebration of rural living held annually each September in Unity, Maine. It features 1,000-plus exhibitors and speakers, and emphasizes vibrant communities, sustainable living, and local economies, while highlighting organic agriculture. Learn more and save the date!

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