Nostalgia is an easy thing to ruin – laying it on too thick or appearing insincere is a guaranteed way of losing your audience. We knew we were walking a delicate line with the wistful Volume 034, so we went to someone who was no stranger to sentimentality. Journey back to your childhood as we learn more about the artist behind our trip down memory lane.
Toma Vagner was born on Sakhalin, a Russian island located just north of Japan. Her father was a sailor, and his work frequently took him to Japan and Korea. He would return with suitcases stuffed to the brim with Japanese toys, candies, and comics, which quickly fascinated Toma. Her friend’s father was also a sailor, and soon the young girls became enamored with the colorful panels and drawings.”Japanese bubble gum was a big part of it, because they had small cartoons printed on the wrappers and it was really fun,” Toma tells WeTransfer. “It was all in Japanese, so we didn’t understand anything, it was just pictures and cartoons.” Toma began dreaming of becoming an artist – not exactly a practical career on a small island like Sakhalin. But once she found out about the New York School of Visual Arts, her dreams were validated and her mind was made up. Toma studied illustration, developing a style that not only draws from her love of Japanese drawings, but also toys, games, and stories from her childhood.
Much of Toma’s art threads the needle between hyper-realistic diagrams and fantastic surrealism. Inset panels, inspired by comics and Soviet technical manuals, offer detail and the potential for action without pulling you out of the piece. This style also allows her to play with the idea of “portraits” with inanimate objects as the subject of the piece, as opposed to a human. Note how in the below piece, adam, your focus is drawn to his hands manipulating the guitar pedalboard more than the guitarist himself. Toma also strives to keep the organic quality of her illustrations – what she calls “the sketchbook charm”. “Drawings come out very naturally and truthfully in the primal impulse of transferring ideas onto paper right away,” she tells Designboom. “I strive to keep the vulnerability of the initial drawing.” Slight imperfections, guidelines, and paper textures are often kept when drawings are scanned into a computer. Toma then adds colors digitally or, as she did in her recent series, Toys, uses acrylics and pigment inks. The result are vibrant works that like instructions from some lost, arcane society, with scenes and items that feel familiar even if you’ve never seen them before.
Since graduating from the School of Visual Arts, Toma has already compiled an impressive portfolio of work. She has two major series, Toys and Fairy Tales, each applying her distinctive surreal-diagramatic style to these intimate topics. Her art has been noticed by some big names and organizations – she’s been commissioned by none other than Harry Styles for tour and merch designs, as well as publications such as The New York Times and The Red Bulletin. Toma lives and works in New York City, and is frequently featured in group exhibitions around the city.
This amount of buzz so early in a career is an exciting thing, but it’s clear from Toma’s skill and creativity that the attention is well-deserved. Few artists are so adept at combining different cultures, using traditional and digital media techniques, or retelling old stories with new spins. Though her subjects are often reminiscing on the past, when it comes to Toma, it’s the future we’re excited about.