I really enjoyed my conversation with Ontario-based artist Maria Iva. Her art is colorful and truly captures her passion for each Ontario nature-focused landscape she chooses to paint, especially dunes.

Maria was born in Germany, moved to St. Petersburg when she was 2, and eventually emigrated to Canada in her early 30s, settling in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). She has had a unique life — three lives, as she calls them (you’ll find out in our chat) — and is currently in the process of transitioning into a full-time artist.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn a small piece of her story and what makes her so passionate for art. I hope you get a glimpse of that from our interview below.

[Featured Artwork: “Through Dunes” by Maria Iva.]

Maria Iva


The following responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.

01. Rock, paper, or scissors?


02. What are three interesting facts about you?

A. I was born left handed and then changed to being right handed. That probably changed the course of my life because I liked to draw when I was 6 but I stopped drawing when I was 7 because I was forced to use my right hand. I think that delayed me big time.

B. I started painting late in my life. It was only in my 40s that I started to do art, but I learned quickly and achieved results pretty fast.

C. I’m an immigrant. I’ve had several lives. Life before immigration back in Russia was one life. Then immigration to Canada is my second life. And when I started to do art again would be my third life.

03. What is the main medium you use in your art?

I work with oil palette knife and I work with soft pastels as well. I work in these two media because they are similar. A lot of oil painters and a lot of soft pastels painters do both.

04. What inspires your art?

My trips. I’m a hiker. I love hiking and I have travelled all around Ontario. I’m caring for my 94-year-old father. He lives with me. So I can’t really go far away, but I do a lot of 2-3 day trips that are 2-5 hours drive from my home. I visit provincial parks.

I love nature. I’m inspired by it. A hike through a marsh is the best thing for me. I do it all year round. That’s where I get my ideas for my paintings. I just love Ontario nature. It’s very similar to where I come from in Russia in Karelia, which is between Finland and St. Petersburg. The land is very, very similar because of the glaciers. Lots of rocks and lots of lakes.

But what I also love about Ontario where I live is there is a lot of variety, there are lots of dunes, fields, forests, rocks, marshes and huge lakes. I paint a lot of dunes and I hike and paint plein air in the Sandbanks, Long Point and Pinery Provincial Parks.

05. Is your art your career or a hobby? Something else?

I expect to resign soon from my job as a manager of a program that teaches English to newcomers and become a full-time artist. I’m currently preparing someone to take over and as soon as she’s ready I’ll be gone.

So, it started as a hobby, but now it’s a career. When I started painting I thought it would be something I would do when I retired. But I didn’t realize how passionate I would get. It became an obsession.

I read somewhere that to be a good artist you have to have talent and you have to be obsessed. I’m not sure about talent but, for sure, I’m obsessed. *laughs*

06. Are you more productive at night or in the morning?

I love painting when I have daylight but, unfortunately because I still work, a lot of my paintings are done in the evening after I finish work. I think I’m productive anytime. On weekends, I start in the morning but I can’t paint for more than 4-5 hours because it’s very intense. But I’m ok with any time of the day.

07. What is the most unique thing about the city you live in? (Mississauga, Ont.)

The whole GTA is very multicultural. I love the community where I live because we have people from all backgrounds. We have Canadians, we have Polish, we have Vietnamese. My neighbour on one side is Italian and on the other side is from Pakistan.

08. What kind of training do you have?

When I was in Russia, I earned a Ph.D. and taught in Linguistics which, of course, has nothing to do with art. But I was raised in St. Petersburg, a city with lots of museums. I led tours through those museums and I always liked art.

In my late 40s, I started doing digital photography because I never thought I would paint. But digital photography was actually a step for me to become a painter. I actually became very creative using a camera. Eventually, a friend who was an artist asked me why I didn’t paint my still-lifes that I set up for photography. So, I started taking classes and I really liked it. During the first two years of taking classes I learned how to mix paint, how to create 3D shapes on 2D canvas, and then I started learning how to do landscapes.

I was really fortunate to meet Johannes Vloothuis in Hamilton. He mostly teaches online in the United States, so he’s not very well known in Canada. He is an amazing teacher. I spent five years with him. He really taught me how to do landscapes and how to create pleasing scenes that don’t say everything but say enough to keep the viewer’s interest.

Then, I wanted to learn color. So, I travelled to the United States and studied with the Cape Cod School of Art artists. I took classes with Susan Sarback, who went to Cape Cod but lives in California. I also took a lot of classes in pastel painting in the United States. I found that painting everyday really helped.

I know people in my position will say they’re self taught, but I struggle to say that because I’m not self taught. I would still be struggling to say anything on a canvas if I did not attend classes and learn from other artists.

09. What is your favorite drink?

I drink mostly water. But I also like a Russian drink, which is called ryazhenka. It’s like yogurt you can drink.

What is your go-to band or singer?

I don’t really listen to music a lot. I like classical music. When I drive, for example, I usually have classical music.

11. The art is one thing, but what’s your secret to generating interest and ultimately selling your art?

I don’t think I have any secrets. Basically, I try to create art that I like.

Even when I do commission, I never take deposits because I know if I am happy with the final result but if they decide not to take it — it’s never happened — I know I will sell it.

Sometimes people ask me to repeat scenes, but I don’t really like doing that. I like to expand and create new scenes and I think that’s why some people have 5-6 of my paintings all showing different scenes. For example, even though I know people like my dunes (dune paintings), I don’t want to create only dune paintings. I’m always looking for new, interesting scenes and topics.

12. What’s something you’ve been meaning to try but just haven’t got around to?

Tons of things. But unfortunately I don’t really have a lot of time.

But, for example, I do my pastel painting on white paper and I stain it. But I would love to try to use pastel paper of different colors. The color of the surface translates into a different presentation.

I would say expanding scenes is one thing I want to do more. I’m doing it but I want to be more aggressive. I would love to go back to painting still-lifes. I’ve almost lost my ability to do that because I haven’t done it since the first few years of my painting career.

13. What household chore do you actually enjoy?

I like cooking for friends. I don’t like daily cooking because it’s boring, but I like cooking when I have friends coming and surprising them with something nice.

14. What app do you use most often?

Instagram. And I read a lot of news, so CNN.

15. What is one common misconception about being an artist?

I think people believe — and I believed this myself — if you have a talent, you can take a brush, and you can create a masterpiece without studying a whole lot. People have different kinds of talents; maybe for color or for composition or for drawing. I’ve seen so many people come into my workshop and draw beautifully but they can’t paint. So, in order to become a good painter one needs to study a lot and spend a lot of time painting. 

It’s like singing. A person might have talent and sing beautifully but you don’t know how much they’ve studied and learned to make their voice sound the way it does.

16. What do you hope people get out of your art?

I hope they feel what I feel when I look at the scene. Whatever I paint, I never use photos from the internet. I need to have the feeling of the place. All of the places I paint I visited many times and I have passion for and I’m excited about them. I want people to feel that way when they see those scenes.