I enter a bright tea cafe in Addison, half-expecting to be stood up.
Not in a “bad date” way, or a forgetful one. Rather, in a way that acutely knows the relentless nature of fresh grief, and the unexpected barbs that each new day can lob at you as you learn to live again.
But grief over war in your homeland? That’s not something my personal experience with loss can fully comprehend. It’s not something most Americans today can grasp, although their social media feeds are giving them a mild taste with the constant coverage of Russia invading Ukraine.
Hence, I’m prepared on this quiet Tuesday to be understanding, just in case I open my Instagram DMs and see “Sorry, I just can’t” from my interviewee today.
But there she is.
Volta Voloshin-Smith is instantly recognizable with her peach-colored glasses, warm smile and vibrant wardrobe. The dainty strawberry necklace she’s wearing matches her strawberry lychee tea, along with her delightful work portfolio of illustration, watercolor art, and GIFs… all depicting food.
If you go to big restaurant openings in Dallas, she’s likely there with paintbrushes in hand, creating miniature food portraits for guests (I have two of such paintings: a glass of red wine from Eataly’s grand opening, and a scone from the BreadEx launch party).
When she’s not at events helping people enjoy the camaraderie that celebrating good food can bring with her art, she’s running her business Color Snack. She does more than painting: she tackles brand activations, custom illustrations and animated GIFs for national and international brands (like Dallas Mavericks and Pernod Ricard). She’s been featured in publications like D Magazine, Dallas Morning News, and Dallas Observer to talk about creativity, entrepreneurship and mindset.
Now, we sit to talk about something that’s nowhere near a usual interview topic for Volta. But it’s one she can’t escape, intertwined with her heritage as a part-Moldovan, part-Ukrainian immigrant. The two countries neighbor not only in geography, but also in Volta’s identity as an American immigrant.
“My dad is Ukrainian, but he was born in what is now Moldova. And my mom is Moldovan, but she was born in what is now Ukraine. It’s such a mash-up of cultures.”
Volta herself was born in what was once the Soviet Union (a USSR stamp is on her birth certificate), and she is now also American through her father Vitaly I. Voloshin, thanks to his work as an “immigrant of extraordinary ability” having written five text books and developed the mathematical theory of coloring mixed hypergraphs.
While Volta, her American husband, and the rest of her immediate family reside in Texas now, her aunts, uncles and cousins still live a remote part of Ukraine, meeting the border of Moldova. They are currently safe from the destruction of the war that Russia has brought upon Ukraine by its invasion. On top of that, they are providing shelter, internet access and food to Ukrainian refugees who have been fleeing the larger cities in Ukraine that are being decimated by Russian forces.
When Volta woke up to the news of Russian attacking Ukraine on February 24, 2022, she describes the days that followed as pure shock.
“It was so hard to fathom that this was happening… So many existential questions,” Volta said. “And then, of course, getting in touch with my relatives, making sure that they’re okay, hearing them freak out for obvious reasons. It was hard to get anything done. So much news from different directions and social media is just over-flooded with everything. And it’s still very mentally draining.”
She asks her husband to read her the news of what’s going on, rather than encountering the added visual and emotional overload herself.
“He’s not as emotionally connected to the conflict,” Volta said. “I don’t want to see photos. As an artist, I have such a vivid mind that I can’t separate myself from that. Those images stay with me. And it becomes hard to function.”
One post on her Instagram (which also functions as her business Instagram) puts to words her internalization of the conflict in her homeland, watching from north Texas (swipe for full message):
“Every time I see my parents, I learn more about my roots. It often results in me questioning my identity, realizing how it’s not just one culture that defines me, but several. How my dad is Ukrainian, and my mom is Moldovan and how I was born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore (USSR). And also how I’m an American citizen on top of all that, having assimilated into American culture.”
I asked her how the added element of watching the war from afar was affecting her sense identity.
“I’m very conflicted. I am against the war. And while I’m not Russian, I do speak Russian. So I’m very in tune with that culture,” Volta said. “I don’t agree with invading the Ukraine and causing all of these innocent people to suffer. I hate that so much. At the same time, I’m learning that a lot of people in Russia are also not okay with what’s going on. They’re not supporting this… honestly, it gives me chills because I know how much courage that takes; standing up like that, knowing you’re going to jail.”
Prior to immigrating to America at the age of 14, Volta’s fondest memories (and likely, early inspiration for her current work) come from splitting her time between her Ukrainian and Moldovan grandmothers in the summertime.
“They both had gardens, with gorgeous veggies and fruits. That’s really the reason why I love fresh produce so much: I grew up with that tactile experience in a beautiful country.”
Volta’s social media presence is one that evokes this sense of vivid wonder. At one point in the week, she found the reserves of emotional and creative energy present enough to create a meditation GIF: a watercolor strawberry that expands and shrinks in sync with the “inhale, hold, exhale” instructions for its viewer.
Even while feeling helpless herself and creatively stuck during a troubling few weeks, this is Volta’s mode of being present; offering encouragement on her channel in the way she sees best. She hopes it will rub off positively on followers as the fighting and media coverage intensifies.
“With social media, I appreciate people sharing for the sake of amplifying [what’s happening],” she said. “But at the same time, I just don’t think it’s needed. Sharing photos that are very triggering in any way… you know, those are real people going through very hard things. So it gave me this awareness of like… if I ever share anything in the future that’s going on, I want it to be mindful. I want to uplift and encourage people.”
Want to know how you can support Ukraine from Collin County? Here are some ways.