Ola Volo is a Vancouver transplant whose intricate illustrations address the personal, the animal, the urban and the organic. Her penwork has been gracing walls, books, posters and more in Vancouver, carrying with her traditional Russian and Polish patterning and myth. Her technique blends the improvisational and the precise, and places the animal alongside human in central importance. This ties in wonderfully to our latest issue, Vanimaux, and so I met with Ola at her studio/apartment to discuss her style and inspirations.
Maegan Thomas: Tell me about how the animals in your pieces act as communicators.
Ola Volo: If I want to get a message across, or put a certain feel to a story, from the patterning of the animals come the personalities, the era they fall in – sometimes I draw from Polish roots or Russian pattern making, sometimes I draw things from Native art to give a Canadian feel. For me, and hopefully for others, the animals create a certain state of mind and put childhood storytelling back into peoples lives.
The feeling I want comes first, for example in this piece [indicating her 24 foot piece Baba Yaga, Ludmila and the Sea] who would be the heroic animal to get the heroine through her journey? I chose the wolf which represents power, strength to me personally — it might not even look like a wolf exactly but it comes from the gesture, the feeling, the size. Animals have so much personality; I want to balance the two as I don’t think a human is more significant than an animal. Like, with the swan [in the piece City, pictured], they are holding each other, they are the same size and take the same focus.
MT: Your style is very distinctive, how did it evolve?
OV: I’ve been in art classes since I was a little girl, and I have always been a very detail oriented person when drawing, ever since I can remember, and I’ve been doing illustration for a long time. But the focus on the storytelling is recent.
Pattern making is really addictive, you can’t stop, once you start it: it pieces together as if you’re sewing or knitting, this is the pattern I have to follow.
MT: It’s meditative?
MT: Why not use digital, what is it about inking that you love?
OV: I like the idea of the traditional process actually having paper and pen ready to go, having that space for mistakes – I could do the work digitally as well but it’s not about the perfection, it’s about the imperfections of the patterns, the inconsistencies.
I do plan the composition of the piece, I plan it out and I do a lot of sketching and I have a lot tracing pads but if I look at it and if it doesn’t feel organic or natural I can’t start inking. I need to get to a point where it feels natural and looks like it flows. But once I start inking it just comes, it’s spontaneous; it’s in ink so when you make a mistake; you have to make it work as you can’t go back. It’s one mark following another.
Baba Yaga is my first big digital piece where black and white is by hand and the colouring is digital, accenting the darkness and lightness which goes along with the tone of the piece. I’m planning to do more of that, it’s a nice balance between hand drawn and digital.
MT: Any particular muses?
OV: The Brothers Grimm, they really bring me back to my childhood. And bears are the big thing for me, they are powerful, friendly, yet when you put them in the city space the relationship changes.
I studied in Rotterdam and they really push their artists to collaborate and combine to see what comes out, I never saw that here in Vancouver until I came back and now the city is pushing for it now. I did four years of graphic design at Emily Carr, so I like to collaborate on work, and challenge myself with poster making, book illustration, movie posters. But recently, I said to myself I need something new, needed to push my comfort zone when it comes to art. So I collaborated with my friend Mark [Illin] on a piece called Traffic. He is also very detailed oriented, and does ink work but his style is really logical, planned out while my work is more organic. The combination of our views brought something new.
MT: The city seems to be a big inspiration too. Compared to other urban cities, is Vancouver more successful at blending urban and animal life?
OV: Vancouver is such a different city than any other. I’m not sure if it’s blending perfectly but we just make it work because there’s just so much of wildlife. I’ve never been in a place where wildlife plays such a major role in the city; like raccoons and bears, they have a reputation here, hanging out in suburban backyards. I like that relationship we have, even in our urban culture, we come in contact with these animals; bears, swans, racoons, we still face animals in Vancouver’s unique urban environment.
Check out Ola Volo online, and in the next issue of Sad Mag where she’ll apply her signature style to the topics of glamour and performance. She’s also on posters, buses, skateboards and skin all around Vancouver. Viva la illustracion!