Few other Vancouver artists are making their mark on quite the scale that Ola Volo is.
The in-demand talent has just endowed a historic brick building in downtown Sudbury with her swirling, stylized, folk-art-infused feathers and flora as part of that city’s Up Here festival.
Right before that, she collaborated with painter David Rice on her biggest mural yet, on a 170-foot-long industrial expanse of the SODO track in Seattle—a public-art initiative to liven up a previously bleak bus-and-light-rail corridor.
And this weekend, at the first Vancouver Mural Festival, she’ll be bringing more of her whimsical, intricately patterned images to the exterior of the Arts Factory on Industrial Avenue.
The Emily Carr University of Art + Design grad’s work emblazons beer labels, album covers, and festival posters. She also manages to mount gallery shows and create children’s books. But it is clear that she feels most at home these days—and makes her most visible impact—donning a harness and a respirator mask, and climbing onto cherry pickers and scaffolding to paint massive outdoor walls.
“My perspective is murals can bring energy to a space,” she enthuses from Sudbury before flying back to Vancouver, and she remarks on how much activity and interest her painting there has generated around a neglected mall entrance.
“It wasn’t till I got the opportunity to do a mural that I got to transform a space, and I got hooked! I loved that it was an idea that could be interpreted and reinterpreted every day by people.
“We are a little bit deprived of accessible public art,” she adds, “and this is sort of a way to reclaim our city’s energy and perspective and all these blank walls.”
While Volo’s work is taking on a scale far larger than pieces she made at the beginning of her career, with ink and paper, her success still has a lot to do with her distinctive style, a heartfelt mix of Russian folk tale, nostalgic fantasy, and West Coast nature that could only have sprung from her authentic self.
The artist was born in Kazakhstan, and had already started art classes when she moved to Canada at eight with her family. But she still obsesses about her life back there, constantly researching the culture and her history, picking her parents’ brains about the folk tales her grandmother used to tell her as a child. Most crucially, her elaborate images tell their own stories—stories that transcend language.
“In some ways, narrative works sort of brought me closer to people, and I wanted to stay in touch with that part of me because I’m so far away geographically now,” she explains. “I have curiosity and nostalgia about what was my culture that was so much a part of my childhood but that I no longer have any access to.
“So I’m always looking around at folklore and Russian cuisine and fashion.…It’s something so sincere to me; it has made my art more meaningful.
“Making work accessible: that’s why I love illustration,” she adds. “I’m able to communicate a message that can be read without language barriers. And in some ways I think public art can be responsible for that too.”
It’s that unique Volo style that is in demand, with her work bedecking walls from Hootsuite to lululemon. But it’s so much in demand, it turns out, that the artist is having to take a small leave from Vancouver. She now has a studio in Montreal till at least January.
All you have to do is look around the city to see how busy she’s been here, and how much she’s influenced and permeated the scene here.
“I love Vancouver, but this gave me a break, and time and space,” she admits. “I was able to afford my own large space and I have a lot of thinking time. For me, it feels like a slower lifestyle and a little slower than the pace at home.”
Of course, she’ll be spending plenty of time here, too. She’s particularly excited about the Vancouver Mural Festival (all day Saturday [August 20] around Mount Pleasant), an event that finally brings the wave of street art she’s seen sweeping through places like Brooklyn, Berlin, and Amsterdam to her hometown.
“What’s interesting about the festival in Vancouver is that I don’t think of it as reclaiming a space, as I do with others,” she says, referring to projects elsewhere. “Main Street is full of artists and street life. It’s more like a statement of who we are as artists.
“There are so many here, but we’re hidden in galleries and in magazines and in books. You can understand what the art world is in Vancouver, but you’d have to do your research to find it.”
Between mural projects like this one, she’ll find time to retreat to her Montreal studio to work on a new children’s book. As ever, Volo will be pushing herself to keep mixing it up and travelling around.
“That’s the whole challenge—of not feeling too comfortable,” she says before heading back to her brick wall in Sudbury. “I see now that there is this whole community of artists at these mural festivals who are up and on the go all the time.
“Your whole reasoning is to find yourself in a new city in a mural fest or residency and to keep expressing yourself.”