When Kazakh-Russian illustrator Ola Volo was a little girl, her parents would often drop her off at her grandparents’ farm in the small town of Dmitrievka, Kazakhstan. Volo, now 26, recalls her grandparents plunking a vinyl of old Russian folktales onto a record player in order to simultaneously entertain their grandchild and oversee a working farm, so they could go about their days while she sat, enraptured. “It would be an old man or woman telling a story,” Volo remembers, “and I’d just flip it, over and over.”
To say Volo’s artwork—sprawling illustrations as peculiar and elaborate as matryoshka dolls—was inspired by those crackly record fables is only partway true. “As a kid you share the stories you’re told,” she explains at a café in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. “A lot of our neighbours were Kazakh, and their stories were more influenced by Asian stories and Middle Eastern stories, so they would tell the stories their parents told them, and I had old Russian stories, and it kind of became a soup of stories.” This vibrant hodgepodge of international Baba Yagas and clever forest critters, princesses, and greedy little children who meet allegorical fates became ingrained into Volo’s consciousness, manifesting themselves in the spirit of her work. As a result, to see one of Volo’s pieces is to recall something ancient and placeless, an odd nostalgia for an old country that never was.
Volo, who moved to Canada at age 10 and later graduated from Emily Carr University of Art + Design, has a unique capacity for conveying the universal nature of folklore. Her soulful, arresting style has attracted big-name clients: a time-lapse video of her painting looped in the window of Lululemon’s Vancouver flagship in 2014; this year, she will design elements for Canadian aromatherapy line Saje Wellness; and TED 2016 brought her on as an on-site artist, to listen to the dreams of attendees and transpose them into illustrations. But her ambition is to diversify her medium. “How interesting would it be to create a more sensory experience, and push the boundaries of my work?” For example, Volo recently partnered with chef Shin Suzuki of contemporary Asian-fusion restaurant Pidgin in Vancouver to create a special menu item: grilled octopus served atop a swirling design rendered in eggplant purée. “I’m not a good cook,” Volo admits. “But it’s about pushing your medium—how else can you make your artwork alive in a different format—which interests me.” Volo hopes to one day see her characters animated in a game or an app. “Why would I limit myself by not thinking about technology and how you can evolve art, whether it’s an app or a live story or a book? I think that is where we’re going in the future. I don’t have any shame in saying I think marketing, business, and art all go together.”
Indeed, Volo identifies as much as a businesswoman as an artist, and her mindset has helped her star rise quickly. “I moved to New York for a while, and learned about how much effort and entrepreneurialism it takes to be a working artist,” she says. “When I came back to Vancouver I started tackling avenues like murals and design work, and doing magazine work and children’s illustration, and doing talks and looking into teaching. It’s all in the same umbrella but it’s a way to evolve and challenge yourself,” she explains. Despite her work ethic, Volo cannot simply create on command. “If I’m not connecting to the work or the client’s idea and it’s just not clicking I don’t have the time to force myself into it,” she says.
For now, her focus is on creating a children’s book—working title: Ludmila and the Sea Witch—which is a story about a princess who rescues her prince from a flurry of evil mermaids. “I wanted to play with scale to underscore the importance of the female protagonist,” she explains. “When she’s doing well, she towers over all the other characters on the page.” Incidentally, when the time comes to leave the café, Volo unfurls from her chair to stand nearly six feet tall.