–Words Lin Stranberg Photography Patrice Lacroix + Shayd Johnson
“Painting large murals is my favourite work,” says Ola Volo, a 30-something Canadian artist who lives in Vancouver and Montreal.
You could be forgiven for thinking this tall blonde looks more like a model than a muralist, but make no mistake. She has made her unforgettable mark on walls throughout North America and other parts of the globe as well. In fact, a 2019 mural she completed in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood is the biggest mural painted by a woman in Canada. Called “Walla Volo,” it’s a vibrant tribute to the neighbourhood’s cultural and artistic diversity, extending over a whopping 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,” Ola says. “The first time I saw it, it just shook me! I saw how it made my voice as an artist very clear, how it gave people no choice but to react to the artwork, to notice it and think something about it—good, bad, whatever. That’s the power of large pieces.”
Born in Kazakhstan to a Polish mother and a Russian father, Ola grew up surrounded by the myriad colours and patterns of the Middle East, China and Russia until she emigrated to Vancouver with her parents at the age of 10.
Her parents still live in Coquitlam and she visits regularly. She credits the distinctive look of her work, with its folkloric elements, magical but universal themes and colourful patterns, to the visual influences of her early upbringing.
“Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, and as a vastly multicultural country, it’s a sort of melting pot of content. When I started to look at what made my home beautiful as a child, I saw there were real connections with the ethics of the Eastern European and Kazakh culture that is often represented in bold colours and patterns.”
Women are central to many of her murals, none more strikingly so than 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 experiencing violence. Reflecting the theme of how domestic violence hides in plain sight, five QR codes are hidden within the mural: taking a smartphone photo of them activates statistics about domestic violence and enables viewers to donate to new housing for women who have experienced violence.
“To me, the code in the pocket symbolizes how domestic violence is often a secret many keep hidden,” Ola says.
Her artist’s statement for the piece says: “Coming onto this project, I thought a lot about what it takes to leave a domestic violence situation. It made me think of a powerful, brave queen who grants herself love and opportunities to thrive. Crown held high, she’s looking forward to the future, protecting the fragile bird companion on her shoulder, and rising above the snake that’s trying to hold her down.”
She wanted the woman to claim her confidence and her power back by taking up space.
“She isn’t small or fading into the background. She’s front and centre and commands the attention she deserves—even in the busy streets of downtown Vancouver.”
Her Eastern European folkloric influences, with their patterns and colours, are prominent in this piece, while symbols like fire, hearts and stars contribute to its power and energy.
“It was a complicated topic to create a public piece from, and it shifted 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 that great at it. With all its standards and strictures, I didn’t thrive. Instead, I became interested in illustration. I studied for a year in Rotterdam and felt like I found my tribe with painters and graphic artists. I was not concerned with public art until I returned to Vancouver—I discovered the city through an art perspective.”
There were not a lot of murals 10 years ago. When Ola painted her first one, called “Bunny on the Seawall,” on 50 feet of Kitsilano’s seawall north of Point Grey Road near MacDonald, she didn’t know much about public art at all. She was not even aware that a city permit was required.
Soon the commissions started to come her way.
Hootsuite, a Vancouver tech firm, was her first client: she painted a mural at its Vancouver head office. She’s done work in Canada and the US for clients like Starbucks and Lululemon, and public art in spaces from Montreal to Monterrey.
She’s always aware that public art reflects its community and cultural identity. For the Vancouver Mural Festival in 2016, she created “Van City Scape” at 1st Avenue and Main, a bright, lively piece “to bring colour to Vancouver, as it is often grey and rainy in the city.”
In Mexico, she incorporated colour palettes that fit into the neighbourhood as well as colours she had seen in local markets. As for the women she depicts, “They represent a little bit of me, a little bit of the women who inspire me.”
She has remained independent of agents or agencies, making herself accessible through her website—and she likes it that way.
“All the work I do usually comes to me from people reaching out. I like that I get to run my own show, make my own decisions and develop my own art. I find projects that align with me usually find their way to me,” Ola says.
She’ll be spending time in Vancouver this fall working on a Vancouver NFT Gallery opening and other projects.
“I’ve been painting walls non-stop since COVID, and recently I found digital work to be another great way to tell stories. It’s a different medium I’m using to keep exploring my art.”
Still, she is sentimental about “Bunny on the Seawall,” her first mural, painted during low tides on the beach in Kitsilano.
“It ignited me to take that leap into storytelling and messaging to the public and not be insecure about it. Besides, she says, “Once you try it, you can’t stop.”