There’s something instantly beguiling about Toma Vagner’s work: her illustrations deal in strange, exotic yet nostalgic color palettes, delicious textures, and a set of motifs—toys, puzzles, Japanese ephemera—that add a sense of the surreal. The reason for the sense of strange, displaced childhood fragments likely stems from the simple reason that Vagner grew up somewhere rather unusual (I’ll be honest, a place I’d never heard of until coming across her work). She’s from the Russian island of Sakhalin, which boasts an ocean within easy reach of Japan.
That geographical fact is important: Vagner’s father was a sailor, who’d often visit Japan and bring back trinkets, comics, and candies, the aesthetics of which directly informs her work today.
“I’ve always been really struck by Japan’s design and color palettes,” says Vagner. “I’ve been to Japan twice and with everything, I just want to remember certain colors or drawing styles—not just anime or manga, but the general sense of design. They have such a long history of art and design; even in the little cartoons you see the history of Japanese art, things like Hokusai’s compositions.”
One of Vagner’s most arresting projects is her Toys series, inspired by the popular Soviet playthings of her childhood—Rubik’s Cubes, Jenga, Spinning Tops (“Every child owned one in the Soviet Union”), and paper dolls. “There’s a weird sense of movement in those things, and they look very interesting visually,” she says.
It was that project that brought about a job for something of an unusual client: none other than teen heartthrob and ex-One Directioner Harry Styles. “His creative director approached me out of nowhere,” says Vagner.
“I enjoy working on projects that give me a lot of freedom—I’ve had some art directors who didn’t even want to see my sketches as they know the best ideas come in the final stage. In my favorite projects, they have one thing they want me to make, but give me the freedom to execute it how I see it and how I want to. That’s when my pieces come out in the best way, when I have time to play around with not a lot of rules. Rules are good, but not a lot of them.”
Her beguiling textures are the product of a process in which every piece she makes is done by hand: her drawings are formed on “imperfect paper, with some fibre or marks on it,” which is then scanned. Her colors are mix of digital and acrylic painting: “I just play around. I guess it’s all intuitive and visceral.”
Like most illustrators, Vagner, who graduated from New York’s SVA around a year-and-a-half ago, was one of those kids always furiously scribbling away. “I also had a lot of friends who were into drawing, and we’d get together and draw stuff like our classmates. We were really into anime and manga and things like that. Drawing was always what I wanted to do, but in Russia it’s really difficult to make a career making art. Even with commercial illustrators, it’s impossible to make a living.”
The reason for such a tricky creative climate, Vagner reckons, is that the “market for art” is less developed than elsewhere. Hence, her journey to New York. The reasons for her choosing SVA, however, were emotional as well as practical. “It’s a funny story,” she says. “My best friend and I were listening to My Chemical Romance and we knew the main singer attended SVA, so that’s how I heard about it. I’d also read some comics, like 12 Days by June Kim, translated into Russian, and it turned out this artist was a graduate, so my interest in the school was building up. But I never thought I’d be able to actually study there!”
Despite the Kafka-esque Visa application process Vagner currently finds herself quagmired in, things are going well for her in America: she recently exhibited at Comic Con—an opportunity of the kind she says simply doesn’t exist in Russia—and sold well, and now has the luxury of picking and choosing clients. “Right now, I’m just pretty happy art-making she says.” And so she should be.