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Olga Stern: Illustrator, Graphic Designer & Surfer.

As Oscar Wilde once stated, “To define is to limit”. Olga Stern is more than a simple artist from Vancouver, British Columbia, and that’s why this quote is relatable to her. She does illustrations and graphic design for different mediums, whether it’s for books, films, televisions or magazines. In her art, you can easily see that the West Coast plays a huge part in her inspiration as well as surfing.

I’ve discovered Olga online, but it’s only until we met that I knew: she’s one of the good ones. Between sips of sake in a small sushi restaurant on Main Street, Olga and I talked about her adventures, her inspirations and the role of surfing into her art. She’s charismatic, funny and charming—I can imagine her being the nicest surfers to have in the lineup when surfing cold water in an intimidating spot. But not only that, she’s extremely talented.

Let’s dig into her mind, shall we?

Where are you from and how did you started being into art?

I am originally from USSR – Growing up in between Odessa (currently Ukraine) and Kaliningrad (Currently Russia). Escaping the collapsing political state of USSR my family immigrated to Toronto, Canada. Once I was making money, I found myself constantly away travelling, surfing and exploring—always drawn to surf and to the ocean. At one point I realized how often I was gone from Toronto and why, so I quickly moved myself to beautiful British Columbia. And although I am in love with the Pacific North West, I know that my drive to explore will definitely have me living in many more places around the world in the upcoming years.

I have been immersed in art since I was very young. I think that growing up in my family it was basically impossible not to be involved in the arts or be a lover of nature. I have vivid memories of being extremely bored and restless if I was not either out roaming free exploring the world or at home paint brush in hand painting up a storm. This feeling of being STAGNANT if not out exploring or painting has remained a driving force in my life to this day.

My parents were both part of the Theatre and the art scene in the USSR. My mother directing plays for the Local theatre in Kaliningrad and both my parents acting in various productions. Their friends who surrounded me in my childhood were actors, musicians, costumers, puppet makers, and visual artists.

I lived in a world in between the theatre and the wild. In my early childhood we spent a lot of time on the beach, our flat in Odessa was 15 minutes from the Black sea and Kaliningrad is home to the beautiful Kurshkaya Kasa National Park on the Baltic Sea.

The constant stimulation of the arts and the beautiful mountains, seas, and forests were so inspiring that once indoors as I child I would start to feel like something was missing.

Creating art became my way of keeping that STAGNANCY away by recreating to the best of my ability that feeling of awe I experience while exploring the world around me.

Once I have a brush in my hand the world is my oyster – any place I could dream up in my head could become reality once I am able to set it down on paper.

I was sent to a specialized “arts” school since the age of 5. Once we moved to Toronto, Canada I was accepted into ‘’Claude Watson School for the Arts’’. From grade 4 until the end of high school my education – on top of the regular workload of academics included Mime, Visual Art, National Dance, Orff, Drama, jazz, Musical instruments, Choir and Musical Theatre. After high school, I was accepted into Sheridan College for Animation.

Since graduating, I have been lucky enough to make exploring and art not only a lifestyle but my career.

How would you describe your artwork?

I would describe my artwork as the mirror into my inner happiness, sadness, love, adventure and hope at that point in time.  I use art as a voice with which to document and share the wonder of the world around me.

I believe living in beautiful British Columbia must give you inspirations for some of your work, but where do you mainly get your inspirations from?

Most of my inspiration comes from exploring, from reading, from learning, and from the people who surround me at a given time.

I am always running from that feeling of STAGNANCY I experience when left too long in once place. I have learned that to feel healthy and create my best artwork I need at least a one month surf trip a year to some new wonderful place around the globe. I need to see something new, meet someone new, and learn something new.

And yes, I am really lucky to call the Pacific North West my home. British Columbia has yet to leave me feeling bored. Every weekend is a new trip and a new adventure.

It seems like you are touching to a lot of different mediums, doing illustrations for books, films and magazines. Which medium do you like the most and why?

I have always been drawn to telling visual stories. At first I thought working as a Visual development artist was the only thing I wanted to do. I equate it to the same feeling I had as a kid when I could make any world I imagined a reality just by drawing it. As an adult it was super thrilling to see the worlds I would imagine come to life through film.

However full time work in the film industry creates a lifestyle that is conflicting with the life I envision for myself in the future. And I am currently in a transition phase taking on more freelance work, and clients that will eventually allow me to live with less routine and more freedom.

So even though I love working in film and I am super happy at my current full time job – amazing team- talented, inspiring humans- I would have to say that I prefer illustrating for magazines and children’s books simply due to the freedom it creates in my life. I could easily be travelling with my laptop, pencil crayons, paper while working remotely. And this is exactly the type of life I imagine for myself in my near future.

One thing that we particularly liked at Nouvelle Vague is your art work related to skateboarding and surfing. When did those sports became an inspiration for you?

I fell into my love of surfing by accident 7 years ago in Costa Rica.  I’m sure I was destined to run into it eventually.  The whole family tried surfing for the first time on a vacation.   I could not fall asleep that night because all I wanted to do was keep surfing, and ended up dreaming about it for the next month until I flew myself back out to the surf.  Everything about the lifestyle associated with the sport made sense to me. The beauty of waking up early to catch the glassy waves, evenings out in the lineup as the sun sets into the glistening water, the healthy exhaustion and good night’s rest that follows a long session. I have never felt more at home and at ease then in the presence of the humans that make up the global surfing community. I have met so many incredible people that all experience the same un-describable connection with the movement of the ocean as they surf, as I do. It is hard not to be inspired when it comes to surfing. Immediately I found myself drawn to painting the surf, surfers, surfboards, skateboards always trying to capture the joy and the mystical connection that surfing allows you to make with Mother Nature. It was easy I just fell into it-fell in love with it.

There are a lot of people out there that would like to achieve living off their art—what do you think is one of the biggest challenges in making it happens?

The challenges are vast, and maybe this is a corny thing to say, but they have as much to do with a person growing into themselves as they do with external forces.

Probably the most difficult things to get past are the subjectivity of art and the acceptance that although there are certain establishes tastes within the field there are no correct path and no accurate grading system.  Therefore popularity and acceptance are as full of grand achievements and also massive depressing failures as are the other aspects of my daily life. I have found my artistic career to be a fine balance between using my unique inner tastes and gut choices and using the established norms of what the industry today considers to be mass appeal. For my personal work, I completely disregard the latter and therefore feel free to make more mistakes which to me makes art more enjoyable. For work you have to be able to think fast draw fast and make something appealing in a certain time frame with minimal mistakes along the way. This is a difficult thing to learn as most artists are perfectionists and creativity is a hard animal to harness. Some days I am just not in the mood or not inspired to draw, but the work has to get done.

What kind of projects have you been working on?

I have worked on so many different projects at this point in time – as an animator, a storyboard artist, a painter for backgrounds, an illustrator selling my work in galleries, a graphic designer for surf and stand up paddle boards. Currently I am working as a Set designer for the Puss In Boots series for Netflix and just wrapped up illustrating a children’s book for Simon And Shuster NY called «Edward Gets Messy ” written by Rita Meade and I just illustrated some spreads for Owl Kids Chirp magazine June issue.

Olga running towards the ocean for a little surf session. Photo by Ursel Barwinski aka @whateverhellofriday

Being a surfer usually means that you usually enjoy going on adventures to chase the swells. Does travelling help you create more?

Travelling and surfing have a big impact on how creative I feel and definitely have a major influence on my art.  It’s amazing how many places Surfing can take you. It makes our world seem so small and united when you can travel to almost every country and find a community of surfers that feel just like home.  The knowledge and personal growth that comes through the people met and the experiences made travelling are absolutely priceless. I think my most treasured pieces were created either during or directly after a long surf trip.

Is there anyone in the surf industry that has influenced you in your art?   

It is very hard for me to pinpoint specific influences within the industry. I feel like my influences tend to be quite vast and often all over the place varying all the time.

But I guess if I were to narrow down a few contemporary influences. For graphics I really like the work of Stevie Gee, super edgy and playful. For illustration I really like Kitty Crawther also for being playful.

What would be your “dream project” to be working on?

I don’t really have a dream project as much as a dream lifestyle. It is really hard for me to separate the two, as without their marriage, I can’t see myself being fully happy.

In the future, I see myself working from a cob house perched on a remote surf break. Surfing in the morning and evening and working during the day remotely illustrating for surf/skate magazines and brands and children’s books.  Immersed in nature, with schedule not bound by 9-5, surfing every day and painting definitely sounds like a dream.

So, what’s next? Any projects coming up for the rest of the year?

I just wrapped up the children’s book for Simon and Shuster «Edward Gets Messy.” I loved working on this book and I am excited to look for projects similar to that right after I catch my breath.

The next project that seems to be coming up is Some Background painting work for a commercial with Studio AKA in England.

I also know I will be travelling and surfing on a month long trip sometime in September or October. I have narrowed the location down to El Salvador but knowing me, nothing is solid until a week or 2 before! I am excited to paint a few more surfboards during that trip and create some new art inspired by living on the beach.

See more from Olga
Website / Instagram

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