Ola Volo is a Canadian illustrator who draws her distinctive style from history, multiculturalism, and folklore. Her work brings together animals, people, architecture, and nature to articulate scenes that are rich with symbolism and detail, encouraging viewers to get lost in the paint and rediscover storytelling in a new light.
Though Ola was raised in Kazakhstan, she’s spent much of her life in Vancouver — a city that offers her an endless supply of inspiration and blank space. For this reason, we caught up with her to learn more about the allegorical undertones of her murals and the creative scene in her favorite city.
Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing?
I was born and raised in Kazakhstan — which is situated between China, Mongolia, and Russia — in a city called Almaty. It used to be the capital and literally translates as “the grandfather of the apple” because that’s where apples originated. But since my mom is Polish and my dad is Russian, their respective cultures played a huge role in my upbringing as well. It’s also important to note that during the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan turned into this crazy melting pot of folktale stories because of its geographic position and the fact that it wasn’t Westernized at all. People just learned to pass stories on to the people around them orally. So, growing up, I was surrounded by folklore. Since we didn’t have much technology, these stories became a large part of my upbringing. My grandparents would just start the record player and we’d listen to stories over and over again. I think that’s when my visual imagination started to really build.
When did you move to Vancouver, and how did you first get into illustration?
I was 10 years old when my family emigrated to Canada — there was a short period of time when the country was accepting young families from Kazakhstan. I didn’t know English at all, so when we arrived, I tried to figure out ways to bypass the language barrier, which is why I initially turned to art. I was a naturally creative kid, I guess — I loved to draw, and the other kids just sort of took me in because of it. Soon after we moved, I started taking a lot of art classes outside of school. After attending courses for several years, I was accepted into an art school in Vancouver. Although I’d settled on being an artist, everyone I spoke to told me to pursue graphic design instead. Since it sounded more serious and like a better profession to bring up at the dinner table, I listened. I had only just bought my first computer, though, so the transition wasn’t easy. I was like, “Uhhh, where are my paints and markers?” Everything had to be really layered and laid out so nicely and tightly, but I kept wanting to make things chaotic and weird. It just didn’t feel like my language. So, eventually, I went on to study illustration in the Netherlands.
When I came back to Vancouver, everyone kept asking me what I stood for as an artist. That’s when I started really looking into what my language was. And I realized that because my upbringing was so diverse and because I had moved to a city where there’s an amazing platform to unpack that, embrace it, celebrate it, explore it further, and invite other people to take part in it, that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to celebrate storytelling and the intersection of cultures within the city I call home.
How do you think your cultural background comes through in your work?
I actually use a lot of the folklore characters that I learned about during childhood in my pieces. I integrate what the wolf represents, what the geese represent, what the little Маша represents, but I use these characters and personalities in the setting of Vancouver — to explore what happens here. So, while the inspiration behind these symbols points back to Eastern European folklore, a lot of the patterns used in my pieces are much more reflective of the First Nations community and the settings are reflective of Canada’s west coast — with evergreen trees, mountaintops, the ocean, whale tails, and other details that make Vancouver magical. My work is about bridging all of those gaps, about making things feel somewhat local and recognizable while still having my heart and my story in it. That’s what folklore and public art are about — accessibility.
As a kid, everyone in my hometown had access to these stories, and now, these murals can continue that accessibility. No one has to pay for them — they’re free. They occupy walls that would be there anyway. So, I think folklore on walls is the perfect way to bridge barriers.
What is the creative community like in Vancouver, and how have you tapped into it since you’ve established your visual language?
I’m been connected to the creative community in Vancouver for a while because of where I went to school, but I think the minute I started pursuing public art, I got much more involved. Because when you’re painting murals, you need support. You just have so many questions. For example, the first mural I ever did was on this little private beach. I remember showing up to work on it and there being a lot of guys doing their own murals along that same stretch — they were all top-of-the-line graffiti artists who knew exactly what they were doing. I, on the other hand, showed up with a huge bucket of paint — next to the ocean! Nothing dries by the ocean! But I didn’t know that then. They all thought I was so strange. Before long, I was just covered in paint from head to toe, and these guys were like, “Girl, you need guidance. You need someone to teach you how to hold a spray can.” And I was like, “No I don’t… but, wait where can I get one? What do I need, exactly?” And so they helped me out and told me exactly what I needed. I learned so much from them. Just watching them work was incredible. They did some amazing stuff, and even though I recognized that it wasn’t my style, the skills still applied. Collaborating with them was what taught me how to tackle bigger walls and ask questions, even if they were a little dumb. It showed me that even when you’re doing something that’s yours, you still need to be involved with the creative community because everybody needs to learn from each other. It’s the only way to evolve as an artist.
Since you first started doing public art here, have you noticed the city changing at all or supporting art in different ways?
There has been a big shift in public art in Vancouver. Just five years ago, it was almost non-existent. You’d walk down the road and just see old community art projects. And yeah, they brought people together but they weren’t so nice to look at. We needed work that celebrated all kinds of different voices, but we didn’t have the space to do it. Then something happened — Vancouver starting seeing value in street art and understanding how it can actually improve properties and neighborhoods and bring more interest to areas, rather than be something to cover up. That’s when the city simplified its policies in regards to permits and really began investing in murals and events like the Vancouver Mural Festival, which has since opened a lot of doors for artists.
How have you seen Vancouver embrace these different voices?
I think that all of Canada is doing a great job of that, to be honest. The more I travel across the country, the more I see this clear goal of letting communities grow and embrace their own backgrounds and cultures. There’s almost this drive to figure out what it means to be Canadian, but it’s both the question and the answer. Being Canadian has no fixed meaning. The country truly is a melting pot, so we’re embracing that identity and letting these cultures thrive. And that’s allowing people to experience and borrow from other cultures — like, you can be a huge enthusiast of Japanese food and also love Italian music. There’s an interesting generational movement happening in Canada that’s a real result of this. As an artist, it’s such a privilege to live in this sort of environment, because I really do feel liberated to express whatever I want here. And because my background is quite diverse, I don’t know how I’d feel expressing myself this way in Germany or the Netherlands or Poland, where perspectives are a bit more fixed. So, I think there’s this unique curation on all fronts here.
When you’re elsewhere in Canada, what do you miss most about Vancouver?
When I’m in Montreal, I can usually create a lot of work, but I don’t feel as grounded as I do here. And for me, being grounded comes from the human desire to be in the wild — to be by the forest or the ocean. There’s something that happens when I’m on the beach and the water is calm; that’s when everything sort of stabilizes in my mind. But when I’m in Montreal, I don’t really have an escape. I have the city, and I really do love the lifestyle there, but there, it seems like there’s a loss of what my work stands for. I like to create pieces that are oriented around calm nature scenes, and I think I miss out on a lot of that direct inspiration when I’m not in Vancouver — maybe that’s why I come back all the time. It’s just so essential to me.
Speaking of nature — how does the theme of wilderness come through in your work?
When I started pursuing my own art, I wanted to explore how the west coast is shaped by its proximity to wildlife. Getting lost in the forest, walking by the river, and being surrounded by evergreen trees is just a part of life in Vancouver. I’ve always loved how nature and the city support each other — neither one has shut the other out — so I wanted to play with this relationship through my work. But first, I had to define what the ocean looked like in my world, what a tree looked like, what sunsets looked like. I wanted every element to have a life and a soul and something to say, which stemmed from First Nations storytelling. While they personify animals and plants through words, I was driven to do that visually. Now, this relationship can be found in almost every mural I do.
For example, I did this piece about Vancouver back in 2012 that has a bear sitting on top of the city — with Granville Bridge, Downtown, the Seawall, Kitsilano — next to the ocean where there’s a woman holding a swan. I painted it because a bear had recently gotten into the business district after riding in a garbage truck from North Vancouver. He just emerged in the middle of the downtown area after munching on some garbage and everybody lost their shit. That story reminded me that even though it’s really wild over the bridge, it’s completely urban just a five-minute drive away. We are so close to nature; we need to work toward an integrated life with the wilderness. While I believe Vancouver does live in harmony with the surrounding area, we need to keep that at the forefront of our lives, and that’s what I hope to remind people of through pieces like that.
Are there any other major themes within your work?
One of my common themes is how people live in relation to each other. I just had a show a couple of weeks ago that was based on tarot cards, and the reason I love tarot is that it gives you a beautiful way to reflect on where you are and how you connect to cultures worldwide. Tarot is just another form of storytelling, and it was interesting to explore as an artist because there are so many different decks out there, but you can understand each of them because they have a similar visual language. No matter who you are or where you are, the cards have the same message, but they can help you look at a story in a different way. It’s a beautiful way to unite people through work that feels both recognizable and new, a common duality in my work.
Do you have any favorite spots in Vancouver that you return to for inspiration?
One of the places I love most is the beach where I did my first mural at. It’s a bit of a secret beach — I don’t think it even has a name. But from it, you get this amazing perspective of the city, surrounded by nothing. I also love going to Jericho Beach and hiking in Stanley Park — there is a secret bridge that leads to a bunker that overlooks all of Vancouver there. But I do a lot of driving and biking, too — the Seawall is an interesting way to encounter small moments with nature in the city. I love that.
You said that you think Vancouver is naturally curious, that it’s an ideal place to be a creative right now — can you expand on that?
Yeah, I think that comes from living so close to worlds that are wild, places that we can’t seem to grasp. No one ever runs out of stories or curiosity for exploring the world because it feels like you’re always the first one to ever hike that hike or stumble upon that beautiful view. Everything about the land makes you feel like you can only keep discovering. From one spot to another, it feels untouched, unlived. It feels like you’re making your mark on the city when you’re exploring it. And then you share your findings. So, I think this curiosity comes from people exploring the parts of their home that are meant to be. Vancouver is for risk takers; it encourages people to live a younger lifestyle. Like, even my parents talk about how they feel younger here than they did when they were 40 and living in Kazakhstan. This city is curious — it’s comprised of people who travel and live an active life. I’m sure this pertains to several cities in Canada, but Vancouver has that in its DNA. And that active lifestyle makes people feel younger, happier, healthier, interested, and interesting. It promotes community because you can live vicariously through each other as you explore different areas because there’s just no limit on how many places you can go here. Which, in my case, means there’s no limit on inspiration.