For the latest in our Creative Conversations series, E&had a chat with designer and illustrator Mary Zaleska from Gdansk, Poland. We talked about what inspires and what challenges her, as well as her favourite illustration and the boxes yet to be checked on her creative bucket list. 

Mary Zaleska | Photo courtesy of the artist
E&M What does a typical day in your life look like?

Mary: Well, it depends, since I still work part-time. If it’s one of my “days off” dedicated to my freelance activity,  I sleep in, drink my cup of black coffee, and then sit down and read my emails. Depending on what projects I have going on, I’ll focus on the one with the closest deadline. But I also think it’s important to enjoy life outside of the computer screen, so if I feel I need to detach from my work, I’ll go for a walk or cook a more ambitious meal and then get back to it.

E&M How did you get started with designing and illustrating?

Mary: Like for most creatives, it all started with a piece of paper and some crayons when I was a kid. First, I was copying my sister’s attempts to draw Disney princesses. That’s how I found my passion for drawing and painting, and I became obsessed with practicing and learning new techniques. For the longest time though, I didn’t plan to pursue it professionally. I was actually supposed to be a neurosurgeon…

E&M : How did you end up designing wine bottles rather than operating on brains?

Mary: I had doubts when I was preparing for med school and started taking art classes – just in case… And then I figured I probably shouldn’t become a doctor, if I was already having doubts. So I stuck with the art classes, instead.

“put on your fanciest robe and #stayhome” | Illustration courtesy of Mary Zaleska
E&M What’s the last thing you’ve drawn?

Mary: I’ve drawn a personal illustration called “put on your fanciest robe and #stayhome” because of the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve also recreated a part of it in gouache paint.

E&M Some rave about the inspiration that strikes them when showering, others swear on taking long walks in nature. Where do you have your best ideas?

Mary: I find that everything we see every day creates our own personal library of images. Later on, we can sample from it, be inspired by it or learn what we don’t want thanks to it. My best ideas don’t usually strike me in the shower or during long walks. When I’m ready for the idea, it usually just comes to me.

E&M Many of your illustrations are of women, including your Women of Pattern and Goddesses of Food series. How come?

Mary: I always drew more females, it was just a preference, but since I’ve started to publish my work it’s a more conscious choice. I try to represent real feminist values and tolerance, therefore by portraying women, I want to empower them.

E&M Life as a young creative can be difficult. Which challenges have you had to overcome? And, how did you do it?

Mary: In the beginning, it is definitely difficult to get your work out where it matters, to get commissions, to be published. We do have platforms like Instagram and Facebook which are great, but considering how much content is on them, it is nearly impossible for it to have any impact. I had to and still am dealing with ignored emails and messages, but to overcome it is to simply be persistent. It is not easy to be ignored or rejected but in order to “make it” you definitely need to get used to it and not let it get to you.

Illustration courtesy of Mary Zaleska
E&M Besides the challenges you’ve dealt with, what’s one of the best things about working in a creative industry?

Mary: Freedom. I can work from anywhere in the world, have international clients, reach different industries and markets. There are so many ways I can use my work and so many outlets, it’s simply wonderful.

E&M You’ve recently moved back to Poland from the US. How is the European art scene different than the one in the States?

Mary: I expected it to be calmer and less attractive, but since I got to know it, it definitely proved me wrong. There are so many events, fairs, exhibitions… I could never be bored! And, I’m not saying the US scene isn’t welcoming, but the European one is very open to new members.

E&M : Who is your favourite visual artist? And why?

Mary: I’m currently obsessed with Sophie Dherbecourt. She is a young French artist, her paintings are also very feminine. I simply adore her paintings! She herself is inspired by Matisse and Tamara Lempicka, who I consider to be one of my favorite artists.

E&M : Favourite artist aside, which one of your own projects or designs do you like the most?

Mary: It’s hard to pick one, mostly because as soon as I’m done with a project, I instantly find something wrong with it. So I’m rarely content long enough for something to become my favorite. But if I have to choose it would be an illustration “I don’t know what to do with myself”. It’s one of my more minimal projects therefore it’s more time resistant.

“I don’t know what to do with myself” | Illustration courtesy of Mary Zaleska
E&M Your creative portfolio is quite varied: You’ve even co-designed and -produced your own fashion collection, developed the concept and packaging for a fictional wine brand, and designed a food truck. What is still unchecked on your creative ‘bucket list’?

Mary: Definitely a book cover, illustration for the New Yorker, and fabric design for a major fashion brand.

E&M Where can readers go to see more of your artwork?

Mary: I can be found on Instagram @maryzaleska, where I post my most recent work, and at exhibitions and art fairs. I always let people know when an event is happening via my social media.

Many thanks to Mary. Some answers have been edited for brevity or clarity. 

About the interviewee
Mary Zaleska is an illustrator, designer, and art director from Poland. Her style is versatile, inclusive, fresh, and often feminine. Apart from drawing and desinging, Mary also has experience in branding and digital strategy. You can find her on Instagram @maryzaleska and on her website.

Cover illustration: Courtesy of Mary Zaleska

  • retro

    Sarah Gerwens lives in London, but grew up in Dortmund, Germany. Currently a PhD student, she holds BAs in Global Studies and Psychology from Hofstra University and an MSc from the London School of Economics. In the past, Sarah has interned in the European Parliament, the Bundestag, an anti-torture NGO, and the GIZ.

You May Also Like

Digital Activism: Hate Speech in an Era Where Everyone Has Their Say

Every time a news headline is created, social media is flooded with opinions based ...

Book tip: Michael Stavarič

The award-winning novelist Michael Stavarič recommends “one of the most unbelievable texts ever to ...


Lost in translation: the weird and wonderful idioms from all over Europe which ought ...