There is something intuitive about Ola Volo’s work. Viewing one of her monumental paintings—be they on a canvas or the side of a building—for the first time, it’s as though you’ve seen it before, and as though inexplicably, you know just how to read it. Similarly, when you meet Volo herself, there is something about her, too—she is as warm and as thoughtful as a childhood friend. Layers of stories and anecdotes and laughter unfurl from both the work and the artist, yielding a niche that somehow speaks to something universal. This quality is rare, and was not summoned overnight; Volo has been cultivating her unique and now-prolific practice for decades.
Volo knew she’d be an artist from an early age. After her family immigrated to Vancouver from Kazakhstan when she was 10, Volo’s parents encouraged her to take art classes to improve her English. She kept with it, and in Grade 12, she started night classes at Emily Carr University; after graduating from high school, she began her post-secondary education there in graphic design. It was just about at this point in Volo’s life, however, that she began to feel nervous. “[The style of education] was much more corporate at Emily Carr,” she says over tea one afternoon in Vancouver. But Volo’s style was then, as it is today, much more amorphous.
It wasn’t until she moved to Rotterdam to study for a year during her degree that her fears were quelled: it’s not that she wasn’t cut out for art, it was that Vancouver’s art education was not necessarily right for her. Art education, like art itself, is highly contingent. So it was in the Netherlands, despite speaking no Dutch, that Volo combined an interest in her own heritage with her unique artistic community to hone her practice: one based in innovation, tradition, intense research, and critical self-reflexivity.
In Rotterdam, “I saw how much patterns affect culture,” says the artist, who is now based in Montreal. “A lot of the patterns we see associated with different [Western] cultures are actually borrowed—maybe from China, or South Africa, or South America.” As cultures appropriate patterns and visual idioms from abroad, a new (and often problematic) site of generative hybridity is created. What is delicate is the negotiation of cultural heritage and preservation as patterns or recognizable characters are taken up into an artistic practice. This is where Volo’s commitment to collaboration through equitable representation comes in. “Who am I to represent a given culture or neighbourhood?” she muses. “It starts to blur those lines. Globalization makes everything a bit more blended. And to some degree, I think that’s also what my art does: patterns are borrowed from different cultures to represent a story, but the characters feel like they belong to the modern world.”
Still, the characters in Volo’s oeuvre often are implicated in a rich history; after all, she grew up on Eastern European folktales. “When I would hear these stories, they’d sound very familiar to what my life was like,” she says. “It was really beautiful, the consistency of these stories, and the repeating characters... there was always something with the geese, or that Baba Yaga would try to cook up the children.” The one about geese stealing children was especially prescient for a young Volo, who spent much time as a child on her grandparents’ working farm. And in the tale of Baba Yaga, the story’s namesake flies around in a mortar, her weapon appropriately a pestle—and her house, which resides most often deep in the woods, wanders around on chicken legs.
Despite the hybrid cultural development of tales such as Baba Yaga, “the lessons behind all of these stories are very universal,” Volo explains. It is from these folktales that she has accumulated much of her visual vocabulary; her paintings work with renderings of such mythic beings, or idealized creatures into which myriad meanings are sublimated. In the adventures of these characters, some of which recur throughout Volo’s practice, viewers are often able to locate a story they’ve seen before—perhaps some variation of Baba Yaga’s tale, but this time dressed in a region-specific vernacular; a specificity which is produced through collaboration.
It’s difficult to imagine, in our present circumstances, hearing the tale of Baba Yaga and taking it to heart: as a child raised in Vancouver, this writer might be more inclined to believe Baba Yaga travelled in a rusty Airstream trailer. But through these stories and creatures, and her careful and immense detail, Volo has built out a universe to which even the farthest removed from such tales can relate. And this universe is effectively structured by an impressive and encyclopedic level of precedent, order, and detail. As much as her brushes, these characters are her tools, or better, her language—a native tongue that manages to efface differences while preserving nuance; bridging cultures, languages, and ages alike.