Mixed Media Artist Rebecca Volynsky on Mural Design and Exploring Mental Health in Creative Practice

The artist in front of her favorite mural at Belleflower Brewing in Portland, which won Portland Old Port's 2022 Best Mural Award.
Battery Steele Brewing, Portland
“As Though I Had Wings,” mixed media painting and collage on wooden panel
Heart and Mane Salon, Portland
Big Fin Poke, Westbrook
Preble Street / Kaplan Thompson Architects, Portland

Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Rebecca Volynsky is a first-generation American residing in Portland who often draws inspiration from her Russian Jewish background. “It has always been important for me to represent my cultural heritage and to acknowledge my family’s history as well as the sacrifices they made,” Volynsky says. “I would not be able to experience the same amount of creative, political, and religious freedom, had they not come to America.” A mixed media artist with a keen eye for color, Volynsky’s joyful murals can be found across New England, from popular Portland breweries like Belleflower and Battery Steele to Westbrook’s Big Fin Poke and beyond. In her interview with MH+D Inside Out, Volynsky breaks down the mural design process and explains how her artwork often acts as a reflection of her emotional state.

Q. How would you describe your aesthetic?

A. In the simplest terms, it’s bold, joyful, and modern. My design aesthetic encompasses my personality, lifestyle, and values. I am very much drawn to bright colors, flowing lines, geometric shapes, decorative ornamentation, and compositions that evoke a high sense of emotion.

Q. Where do you find inspiration?

A. I am very much inspired by bright and bold color (I’m currently working with a lot of coral reds and hot magentas), Eastern European folk art, poetry (Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich are my particular favorites), my personal journey with mental health and healing, and the time I spend in nature. I love the Maine coastline and waterways—specifically waves crashing onto rocks, babbling brooks, and serene lakes. I learned how to stand-up paddleboard this past summer and really enjoyed experiencing water from a different perspective. Exploring new places is very exciting, and the sense of adventure and curiosity that comes from those experiences affects my work by allowing me to develop greater self-confidence.

Q. How does your Eastern European heritage tie into your art?

A. My family emigrated from the Soviet Union right before I was born, and my cultural heritage has always had a major influence on my design. I am particularly inspired by Eastern European folk art design and folklore, specifically the “khokhloma” painting and handicraft style that features elaborate red and gold hand-painted floral patterns on a dark background. I have a few wooden family heirlooms that are painted in this style and often utilize them as inspiration.

Q. Tell us about the mural design process.

A. For commercial and residential commissions, I start with a 15-minute discovery call during which I learn more about the vision for the client’s space and brand. We go over the basics of the process and cover details necessary for an accurate project quote. After that, I work on a proposal that includes information about the commissioning process, a list of deliverables, estimated timeline, project quotes, and layout sketches, which help to visually articulate the best composition/flow of the mural and surface coverage.

During the digital design process, I begin by reviewing my consultation meeting notes and create quick sketches of the general composition in Procreate that I feel would work best for the wall and space. I make note of anything specific that the client requested, such as detailed line work or bold floral shapes. Creating a design that takes the entire surrounding environment into consideration is very important to me. I think deeply about how the shapes and color palette affect the existing design elements and architecture of the space. Sometimes, I even propose a design where the shapes flow up onto the ceiling or scatter onto an adjacent wall. I love when I have the opportunity to do this because the mural then appears to move throughout the space naturally. It becomes much more than a mural painting on a wall, and rather a piece of art that elevates the entire space.

Once I have several sketches going, I start filling out the designs with color. The psychology of color is very interesting to me. Depending on the client’s brand color palette or personal requests, I select hues that will either evoke a joyful mood or create a calming energy within the space.

I often develop up to six different digital design mockups and then slim it down to two to three favorites. I allow for one round of revisions, during which I work with the client on making changes to one specific design or combining their favorite elements and colors from multiple designs to create a mashup.

After a design has been selected, the painting application begins. Depending on the scale and scope of the project, painting typically takes between three days to two weeks.

Q. What are some of the challenges of working on large format pieces like murals?

A. The process of translating a mural from a digital design mockup to a wall is a developed skill. In the more than five years that I’ve been doing this work, my mind and body connection has greatly strengthened. I do not use a projector to display my digital designs onto the wall, but I make a lot of measurements and use chalk to sketch out some of the design prior to painting. The rest is 100% painted by hand and I take pride in that aspect of my process. It’s the most challenging part, especially if I have a large exterior mural that requires a scaffold setup or scissor lift—but that challenge is what I love most about my mural painting process!

Q. Do you have a favorite mural you’ve completed?

A. This is a tough question because I feel that all of my mural work has shown growth and strength in my skill set and creative practice! I really love the 75’ long exterior mural I painted for Belleflower Brewing in Portland in 2021. It’s a standout piece in my portfolio of work, and it recently won “Best Mural” in the Portland Old Port Best of 2022 Awards. I’m so grateful that my artwork has been recognized for creating a fun and happy environment that people can enjoy in the outdoors.

Q. How did your craft evolve from smaller mixed media to large format murals? Which do you prefer?

A. My creative practice is a balance of large-scale mural work, smaller, mixed media painting, and digital illustration. Going from one to the other is a bit of a doozy, but I find that I thrive when I have multiple projects going on in different mediums and sizes. I celebrate the variety of artwork I create and my ability to convey emotion through different mediums. As my creative practice and small business grows, I will certainly continue to explore different mediums and styles in my work. In the past, I have worked with screen-printing, embroidery, bookmaking, and even stop-motion animation. I would love to work with these mediums again in the future.

Q. You’ve said that your art explores themes of personal growth, mental health, strength, and resilience. Can you elaborate?

A. Simply put, developing a sustainable creative practice saved me as a young adult. It allowed me to express my voice through the arts and deal with struggles I would not have been able to work through otherwise. Throughout high school I participated in an after-school youth arts program in Providence, Rhode Island called New Urban Arts during which I worked on different creative projects with artist mentors. This is where I developed my creative practice and identity as an artist. I literally have no idea who I would be or what I would be doing had it not been for this non-profit arts organization and their mission.

Throughout my life, I have struggled with various levels of anxiety and depression. We live in an extremely chaotic world with so much toxicity in the news cycle, social media, etc., and it has always had a great effect on my mental health. The process of creating artwork is a therapeutic method I have used to help self-soothe, regulate, and translate my emotions onto paper or canvas. It is highly meditative for me, and I often get into a “flow” state for hours at a time. I love this part of creative practice because I truly become one with myself and my artwork. I am able to fully express who I am as an individual and my emotions. This is why the themes of personal growth, mental health, strength, and resilience are so prominent in the symbolic elements and compositions I create. As I experience this in my life, it is reflected in my artwork through emotive compositions, mark making, bold color, and flowing line work. Sometimes it can feel a little chaotic, but it always comes together to create a balanced piece—much like my own mind.

Explore mixed media and prints or commission a mural at rebeccavol.com