IPO – Smithers Interior News
–Words Lin Stranberg Photography Patrice Lacroix + Shayd Johnson
“Painting large murals is my favorite job,” says Ola Volo, a Canadian artist in his 30s who lives in Vancouver and Montreal.
You could be forgiven for thinking this tall blonde looks more like a model than a muralist, but don’t let that fool you. She left her unforgettable mark on the walls of North America and other parts of the world. In fact, a mural she completed in 2019 in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood is the largest mural painted by a woman in Canada. Called “Walla Volo”, it is a vibrant tribute to the cultural and artistic diversity of the neighborhood, extending over 15,000 square feet on a 10-storey building wall.
“If you know where to look, you can even spot it from the air when landing in Montreal,” says Ola. “The first time I saw it, it just shook me! I saw how it made my artist voice very clear, how it gave people no choice but to react at work, to notice it and think something about it – good, bad, whatever. That’s the power of big chunks.
Born in Kazakhstan to a Polish mother and a Russian father, Ola grew up surrounded by the myriad colors and patterns of the Middle East, China and Russia until she emigrated to Vancouver with his parents at the age of 10.
Her parents still live in Coquitlam and she visits them regularly. She attributes the distinctive look of her work, with its folkloric elements, magical yet universal themes and colorful patterns, to visual influences from her early upbringing.
“Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and, as a hugely multicultural country, it’s kind of a melting pot of content. When I started looking at what made my home beautiful as a child, I saw that there were real connections to the ethos of Eastern European and Kazakh culture that is often represented in bold colors and patterns.
Women are central to many of her murals, most notably in YWCA Metro Vancouver’s “The Wall for Women,” a 42-foot mural on a wall at the corner of Burrard and Melville streets in downtown Vancouver. Described as a “message of hope”, it was created to support women victims of violence. Reflecting the theme of how domestic violence hides in plain sight, five QR codes are hidden in the mural: taking a picture of them with a smartphone activates statistics on domestic violence and allows viewers to make a donation for new housing for women who have suffered violence.
“For me, the code in the pocket symbolizes how often domestic violence is a secret that many keep hidden,” says Ola.
Her artist’s statement for the piece says, “Going into this project, I have thought a lot about what it takes to get out of a domestic violence situation. It made me think of a powerful and courageous queen who grants herself love and opportunities to prosper. Crown high, she gazes into the future, shielding the fragile companion bird on her shoulder and rising above the snake that tries to hold her back.
She wanted the woman to claim her confidence and her power by taking up space.
“She’s not small or fades into the background. It’s front and center and gets the attention it deserves, even on the busy streets of downtown Vancouver.
Its Eastern European folk influences, with their patterns and colors, are prominent in this piece, while symbols like fire, hearts and stars contribute to its power and energy.
“It was a complicated subject to create a public work from, and it changed my perception of what public art can really do for spaces and people.”
Ola earned a BFA from Emily Carr University in Vancouver.
“I wanted to be a painter,” she says. “Then I tried graphic design, but I wasn’t very good at it. With all its standards and restrictions, I did not thrive. Instead, I got interested in illustration. I studied for a year in Rotterdam and I felt like I found my tribe with painters and graphic designers. I was not concerned with public art until I returned to Vancouver – I discovered the city through an artistic perspective.
There weren’t many murals 10 years ago. When Ola painted her first, titled “Bunny on the Seawall,” on 50 feet of the Kitsilano Seawall north of Point Gray Road near MacDonald, she had no knowledge of public art. She didn’t even know a city permit was needed.
Soon the orders started coming to him.
Hootsuite, a Vancouver-based technology company, was her first client: she painted a mural at their Vancouver headquarters. She has worked in Canada and the United States for clients like Starbucks and Lululemon, and public art in spaces from Montreal to Monterrey.
She is always aware that public art reflects her community and cultural identity. For the Vancouver Mural Festival in 2016, she created “Van City Scape” at 1st Avenue and Main, a bright and lively piece “to bring color to Vancouver, as it is often gray and rainy in the city”.
In Mexico, she incorporated color palettes that fit into the neighborhood as well as colors she had seen in local markets. As for the women she stages, “they represent a bit of me, a bit of the women who inspire me”.
She has remained independent of agents or agencies, making herself accessible through her website – and she loves it.
“All the work I do usually comes from people reaching out to me. I love being able to run my own show, make my own decisions, and develop my own art. I find that the projects that suit me usually come to me,” says Ola.
She will be spending time in Vancouver this fall working on the opening of an NFT gallery in Vancouver and other projects.
“I’ve been painting walls non-stop since COVID, and recently I’ve found digital work to be another great way to tell stories. It’s a different medium that I use to continue exploring my art.
Still, she’s sentimental about “Bunny on the Seawall,” her first mural, painted at low tide on Kitsilano Beach.
“It fired me up to take this leap into storytelling and messaging the public and not be insecure about it. Plus, she says, “Once you try it, you can’t stop.
Story courtesy of Boulevard magazinea publication of Black Press Media