Vala wasn’t a common name in Iceland when Vala Ola was a child; she searched the phone book every year for other Valas. So when I told her that I had a seven-year-old granddaughter named Vala who dreamed of being an artist, Vala Ola wanted to meet her.
Bill Valgardson had sent me a photo of one of Vala Ola’s paintings, and I was moved, for the first time in my life, to write to an artist I’d never met to tell her how much I admired her work.
She replied to my e-mail immediately, informing me that she lives in Cave Creek, Arizona, and that her work was being shown that very month at the Celebration of Fine Art in Scottsdale. And here I was, spending the winter in Oro Valley, Arizona, and my granddaughter, Vala Ingolfsson, was visiting.
It didn’t take us long to make our way to Scottsdale to Vala Ola’s show.
Born Vala Ólafsdóttir in 1962 in Reykjavík, Vala Ola is the daughter of Ólafur Jóhann Jónsson and Ingibjörg Þórðardóttir. “As a kid growing up in Reykjavík”, she says, I would stand in front of Einar Jónsson’s bronze monument, Útlaginn [The Outlaw], awestruck as it towered over me against the grey sky”.
When Vala was four, she showed her father her drawing of a horse with a green scarf and hat. She remembers that “his eyes opened wide”, and he called her mother to come and see their daughter’s creation. Even at that young age, she came to a significant realization: “I must be good at drawing”. From age 13, she took classes drawing live models, then attended Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlið and Listaháskóli Íslands.
But art came so easily to Vala that she never considered it challenging. When her father suggested that art would be a good career for her, she was insulted. “Is he not encouraging me to take a proper university degree because I’m a girl?” she wondered. And so she enrolled in computer programming.
Then one day, on her way home from school, she experienced an eureka:
As I walked that morning in the newly fallen snow, I became acutely aware of my every step. I stopped and looked back at my trail, and realized that I was free to take my footsteps in any direction I fancied. Three days later I sat at a drawing table in my new job as a graphic designer. Seven years later I represented Iceland for the Nordic Graphic Design and Illustration Awards.
(She could have added that she won the Icelandic Design Award at 26).
Having decided that her future was in the visual arts, Vala attended The Art Institute in Bournemouth, England, where she had an exhibit in 1992. It was in England that she visited a psychic who told her that she would soon live in USA. She scoffed at the idea: “Pink flamingos and cowboy hats. I don’t think so!” But her future would prove the psychic right and Vala wrong: “If you want to make God laugh”, she says, “tell him your plans”.
In 1994 she visited her brother in Dallas, and travelled with him to the famed artists’ center of Santa Fe. Arriving there with nothing but her backpack, she decided on the spot to make Santa Fe her home: “It was love at first sight. There was no turning back. I surrendered to the unknown, the wild west. Like a piece of blank paper, I awaited what was to come.” What was to come – and quickly – was a career as a highly successful portrait artist who was fully booked a year in advance.
In 2001, Vala moved to Arizona, and turned to a new blank page. She began to define herself as a sculptor.
Fellow artists thought I was crazy to let go of a successful career as a portrait artist, but I had reached a point where I had to expand and explore new territories. In 2002 I sold my first sculpture, and I haven’t looked back since.
By now Vala is used to turning pages. And she encourages every artist who wants to change media to “have courage, and let go. It’s a freefall for awhile, but you’ll learn how to fly. So if the urge comes, embrace growth.”
Vala’s flights have lifted off from a sound base. Her rigorous training in Iceland and England have provided her with the type of solid background that she would recommend to any young artist: “Drawing from a model is essential to mastering the figure in art. Joining an atelier to study under a master is a classical system that has produced some of the greatest artists in history”.
Vala Ola has been honoured again and again in Europe and North America by art critics and her peers. She is a Professional Elected Member of the National Sculpture Society in USA, and her work appears in some of the most prestigious galleries across the country.
To see more of Vala’s work, you can go to www.valaola.com. Or better yet, Google “Vala Ola”, where you’ll be guided not only to her website, but to a world of art dealers, art gallery owners and art critics who hold her work in high esteem. One such site, run by Western Art & Architecture, with a section known as “Ones to Watch”, brings the work of highly talented visual artists to the attention of fellow artists.
Spotlighting Vala, it reads: “The smooth bodies and delicate limbs of Vala Ola’s figurative sculptures seem to dance on the head of a pin... She embeds each piece with emotional power, somehow trancending her materials to express passion and innocence, self-awareness and complete abandon.”
Even the uneducated are awed by the exquisite detail and inherent motion of Vala Ola’s sculptures. Turn away for a second, and you’ll be sure you saw that bronze bunny move its paw, that bronze mother squeeze her child a little tighter. But beware. Vala’s pieces worm their way into your heart, where they embed themselves forever.
After once seeing Sunkissed, I found myself envisioning it every night before I fell asleep and waking to an image of it sitting on our coffee table in Gimli. The second time I saw it, I noticed new detail – the mother’s toenails, the muscles of her legs, the pride in her little boy’s face as he kisses her, hiding his gift behind his back. The third time I saw Sunkissed, I brought it home.
And as for the meeting of Vala and Vala? It was a touching moment. Then learning that they’re seventh cousins – what could be sweeter!
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