Masha Manapov’s thoughtful illustrations deal with life’s delicate subjects

The Baku-born, Bristol-based illustrator’s ethereal scenes pull off the tricky feat of addressing serious issues such as climate change and suicide in a sensitive way, earning her commissions from the likes of Wired and The New York Times

It’s well documented that a person’s childhood can have a profound impact on what they end up doing in their adult life. Growing up in a creative household can often encourage someone to pursue a creative career that might not have been available to them otherwise.

This was not the case for illustrator Masha Manapov, however. Born in Baku in Azerbaijan and raised in a single parent household in Israel, she and her sister were mostly left to their own devices from a young age, but that didn’t seem to hinder her creativity.

“Even though it wasn’t that long ago … the upbringing was quite different from what we now see as ‘normal’ or standard,” says Manapov. “Children were not considered as the centre of the universe and most of the time we had to entertain ourselves or tag along to whatever the adults were doing. It made us very independent and I guess contributed to our sense of inventiveness and creativity.”

This instinct for creativity has clearly stuck with Manapov; her dreamlike, melancholic illustrations have attracted fans around the world, and so far bagged her commissions from the likes of The New York Times, Wired and UCLA.

After finishing school, Manapov eventually settled on the Visual Communication degree at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, where she majored in illustration. But it was only towards the end of the course that she began to seriously consider illustration as a career choice, drawn to the links it can create between words and visuals.

“I began to appreciate the absolute freedom illustration has to offer. Everything can happen there, both in terms of style and in the stories we tell. It is a constant challenge to remind myself to use this freedom whenever possible,” says Manapov.

After exploring the design scene in Tel Aviv for a number of years, Manapov decided she wanted a change of scene. She’s been based in Bristol since 2015, where she works as a senior designer at local studio We The Curious and balances freelance illustration work alongside that.

“Moving here didn’t necessarily help shape my career, but was mainly a chance to settle down a bit and to be able to finally take a breath,” says Manapov. “When I was freelancing in Israel, I was juggling quite a lot of things at the same time, trying as many things as possible. While here I have been able to push back all the unnecessary and the secondary projects, and focus on what’s most important.”

Being more focused has also given Manapov the chance to hone her style, which more often than not requires her to delve into sensitive and abstract subjects in a visually intriguing way. Recent commissions have ranged from an editorial for Weltwoche magazine about seemingly platonic friendships and what happens when they have to come to an end, to a piece for Tel Aviv University’s student magazine about the problem of suicides on campus.

The illustrator’s ongoing personal project, The Fine Print, was born out of her frustration with the hidden stories of our consumer culture, and has so far spotlighted the ‘natural’ chemicals that go into our food, the environmental impact of paper production and the lower labour cost, large scale production model engrained in countries like China.

Style is something Manapov says she has been thinking about a lot lately, given that these days creatives are increasingly under pressure to be Insta-ready as soon as they start out. With plans to collaborate with people from different disciplines and to translate her work into 3D objects and physical spaces, style is something that she views as actually being more fluid.

“I never wanted to stick to a very specific style because I believe that life, people and styles can be flexible and open to growth and change. I always enjoyed experimenting with different ideas and adjusting the style to the content of the piece,” says Manapov.

“I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not but illustration for me has always been a tool and a medium, not the essence, and I did want to explore wider. I think that quite often I’m commissioned for the strange way my brain works, and not necessarily for my powerful lines or realistic execution.”