” I’m a sculptor, that job has no limitations”
In the immortalized words of Albert Einstein, “The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”
In July 2012, the Albert Einstein Memorial in central Washington DC was yarn bombed by the Polish-born artist Olek. This guerrilla act of creativity was just one loop in her madly creative world of life and art. Today, her crochet wraps reality in a dazzling array of colors, from pinks and purples to yellows and teal.
Not one to sidestep confrontation; Olek (Agata Oleksiak) gave us a peek between the loops of her yarn into a world where wonder meets the reality of social injustice, notions of liberty and equality.
I grew up in a place that was very stingy with possibilities and granted us no eccentricities. I felt like I had to yank up my skirt, expose my bruised knees and bolt the hell out of there. I was a creative kid who made things constantly, I created things out of air, fantasies and dreams, whatever I could get my hands on. In 2000, my English teacher, Kelly, told me, “Poland is not ready for you. You have to move to NYC.” I escaped from the strict confines of Poland. Everyone at that time was born Catholic, white and only spoke Polish. But I was a stranger to my own people because of my beliefs, my clothes and my philosophy. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City (NYC) that I discovered my home, my spiritual home, where I had the freedom to express myself fully in a cultural dialogue and malleable exchange of ideas. That is why I created the camouflage pattern, to transform the human form into a new species. Once a person enters the crocheted skin, their race, color, ethnicity, and even sexuality become irrelevant, camouflaged; they are transformed into citizens of Olek’s world where these identifiers don’t matter and everyone is free.
I’m a sculptor, that job has no limitations. It’s about stretching the canvas to fit the vision. My work is a never-ending crocheted journey, embellished with emotions, memories, experiences, thoughts and insights. Most of all it’s about recording the ephemeral moments of street- and performance art. You see, I hate wastefulness, be it time or commodities. This goes back to when I was growing up in communist Poland. We had very little, so I would save everything that entered my house and turn it into something else. Every morning the milkman would bring bottles. I’d save the tin colored tops, then make Christmas decorations out of a year’s worth of saving. I learned as a kid that if you don’t have something you can always find a way to make it. It was another Christmas, decades later, in 2002, when my love for hooking/crocheting finally enraptured my love life. Romance has taken me through every color of the rainbow: different ages and races, both women and men. I have crocheted them all. After a traditional Polish Christmas supper consisting of pierogies that I slaved over for two days, I went to see a girl I was dating at the time. She was busy working, or perhaps just playing one of those silly mind-games women play. I looked around in her loft and found a stepladder I wanted to transform into a new art piece. Later, I learned it belonged to her ex-husband. It ended up being the first sculpture of mine ever acquired by a collector, in Oliver Kamm/ 5BE Gallery in 2004. I didn’t realize at that moment what I had started on that cold New York night.
From then on my art and my life became more stitched together day by day. One of the best parts about living in this city is that you can find anything on the street. Not just potential lovers, but furniture as well. I was poor and I had to fill my tiny basement apartment using only items I found on the street. I used a camouflage pattern to transform each dilapidated piece, worn by the memories of previous owners.
“ Inspiration is like knitting – it’s for pussies. I put on lipstick, make sure my nail polish isn’t chipped and go to work.”
When my crocheted living space was first disassembled and exhibited at Christopher Henry Gallery, I was forced to move there for six months to live, love, and create. In 2012, the Smithsonian asked to borrow my home – moving the entire apartment, panel by panel, to their American Art Museum. All my fears came to fruition when the museum registrar presented a whole binder with notes regarding condition of the art pieces – mentioning all the stains. Thank God I wear gloves, she said. If you look close at my art, especially close, you will realize just how intimately my life fuses with my art.
Everything that enters or leaves me sooner or later will become a crocheted work or inspire one. Everyone who enters my life will also become art. Because I hate wasting time, crocheting my lovers means I am doing two things at once. If the relationship doesn’t work out, at least I have art. And when both are great, then I am truly happy. The good ones make adjustments to fit better into my crocheted suits. Some even lose their bellies.
My first job wasn’t very glamorous. I started my life in Brooklyn by cleaning houses. But my story really started with making costumes. In 1999/2000, I needed to make a decision about the subject of my thesis. I knew I wanted to write it under the supervision of Malgorzata Henrykowska, who was in the film department, and somehow by combining my fascination with film, theater, fine arts, and costume, we came to the conclusion: “The Symbolism of Costumes in the Films by Peter Greenaway.” Studying his art masterpieces, not only allowed me to complete a quite successful thesis, but – what is even more valuable – it gave structure to my own experiments. And now, I could write a whole chapter about this master, about the connections – known only to me – between our works… another time.
When I was looking for the answers to my thesis I met Polish costume designer, Barbara Ptak. Among many important things that she passed on to me, one thing really stuck in my heart and brain. She said, “If you want to design costumes, do not stay in Poland, go to the USA, to NYC. And never say that you have never designed costumes – just be confident.” So, I did.
When I came to NYC, my best friend Kelly (who was my English teacher in my native country) told me, “Poland is not ready for you, move to NYC.” She helped me to start my costume designing career… she asked me to design my first costume… for her. I could not afford to buy a sewing machine, but I could spend a couple of bucks on a crochet hook. And, in this way, I was able to connect pieces into one costume, which later brought me more jobs. Once I got a sewing machine, I dropped crocheting one more time! I had to figure out what to do about my legal status in this country, and at the time the only option was to enroll in school. I really did not know what to do with myself, what to study, and how to support myself… so I chose the cheapest school in NYC – LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. I have to say it was one of best decisions of my life, a decision that totally changed my life forever. One of my professors – Bruce Brooks, asked me to take his sculpture class. When I heard this I could only laugh. I was not going to become a sculptor! He knew me better than I knew myself; he had this way to talk to his students… so he asked me to make a sculpture before I took his class. He told me to use yarn, rope, twine, and connect it in any way I wanted. On my way home I went to a 99 cent and a hardware store and purchased various lines, ropes…. Then, the nightmare came into my life. I had no idea how to connect these materials into a sculpture. I glued them, tied them, braided them… nothing really worked. One morning, after many unsuccessful attempts, I rediscovered for the third time my ability to crochet. I knew, immediately it was the right sculpting method for me. It is this same feeling when you are falling in love with somebody. You just know it. It began my journey, my crocheting madness that nobody can help me to escape from. But my last ‘regular’ job was teaching art in St. Stanislaw Kostka Elementary School in Brooklyn. And here is how it ended up. “Your pussy is my soulmate,” a lover sent me a message pronouncing his love for my little slice of heaven, not knowing that it would make it into a room that thousands of people would eventually see. That one panel also made it onto the invite for the show (Bleecker Theater, NYC, 2008), which I sent to the Catholic school where I taught. They terminated my career as an art teacher two weeks after the show opened, and I have happily dedicated every moment of my life to art ever since.
My friends and family are supportive of my crocheted journey. I am very lucky that way. My mom says she does not understand all my choices but she would always support me no matter what. Polish mothers rule!
Every time I take a new step, turn a corner, make something new, the highlight of my career changes. I remember selling my first sculpture to a collector in 2004 and getting my first NY Times review for that show. Holland Cotter described my installation as “a tour de force.” I was flabbergasted.
“As an active supporter of women’s rights, sexual equality and freedom of expression, I have used the broad appeal of my work to display my solidarity with those stifled by oppressive laws worldwide. I hope to inspire to create a work for the cause.”
I don’t think that I can verbalize what I’m thinking about when preparing an artwork. I guess it is so natural for me… or maybe I am so focused that I don’t remember the details. When I work on a new piece I see it totally completed and then I just have to make it real for others to see it as well. Crochet is the language how I illustrate my ideas to the world.
Creative passion, for me, is like falling in love. You have butterflies in your stomach and you cannot wait to do it. You do it even if someone might thing it is just crazy idea. I have to trust my instincts. And then, there is motivation to wake up every morning after just a few hours of sleep, even if you are totally jet-lagged, and go to work. Self discipline is what every artist needs. I have different teams; I have a few assistants that I have been working with regularly for years. We read each other’s minds and they make my life much easier! I don’t know what would I do without them. And there are different projects that I invite the community to be part of.
If you make an art that everyone likes, you are doing something wrong. So, clearly, there will be people who might not like it or even hate it. In Seville, where I was wrapping public monument of El Cid, an older man yelled at me, “Olek, puta!” I took it with a smile, as at least he knew my name. Recently, I made a public piece to bring awareness to the current situation of our oceans and placed a gas mask on the crocheted sculpture of Neptune. To me, being an artist means having the responsibility to illustrate and talk about the current, not always comfortable, situation worldwide. Since we are facing a global ecological crisis, I wanted to draw attention to the health of our oceans. As a lone artist, I know I cannot make these statements alone, so I invited the local community to participate adding their voices to mine. If we all work together we can solve issues and make the world a better place. The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) who commissioned me this piece didn’t like that last addition, called the police on me, and created a huge scandal that brought tons of negative comments.
My public installation in Saint Petersburg, Russia, called “Russia’s Pride” has been the most controversial. The most current law prohibits public displays of support for the LGBT community and criminalizes displaying “gay propaganda” and teaching children about “non-traditional” relationships. Many people in Russia were unhappy with the public interpretation of my work and my statements supporting gay rights in Russia. After I made my statements to the Russian press I feared arrest and was forced to stay in my hotel room for the remainder of my stay. However, as I said in my statement to the Russian press, I support all people’s rights. The freedom to be whoever we want to be, who we truly are, to love whomever we choose and marry whomever we love.
I’m a theater monkey, tap dancer, burlesque queen, I tell stories. I want my visual language to transcend the obvious and the expected, rather it should seduce the viewers and lure them into an alternative reality where they can imagine and conjure their own fables with the help of my signature elements.
I’ve learned a long time ago not to read anything that someone writes about me. If negative comments appear on my personal social media, I simply delete them. I’d like to say that my favorite piece of art is the future one. But there are a few that are memorable as they were hard to make for different reasons. Scuba diving off the coast of Mexico, to crochet an underwater sculpture in order to address the issues of our diminishing population of whale sharks and the demise of the global ecosystem was something I will never forget and got me into scuba diving!
When I started nobody could spell the word crochet, no one was doing it, people still confuse crocheting with knitting. Knitting is for pussies. Albert Einstein said, “The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one else has been.” That was the motivation. I am still amazed that I pulled it off, crocheting guerrilla- style, under all the special surveillance that’s in DC.
My work is never finished – the continuous response of the viewers makes the art. My contribution is the tool that helps people realize their own expressions. I hope that it proves that all things are interconnected. Now, I am in Sweden where I am creating a pink crochet house in the middle of a small town called Avesta. We raised money to be able to hire six refuges from Syria and Ukraine, together with the help of some volunteers who can come any day and crochet with us, we are building a dream. I hope it will show other countries and people that we all can coexist together and work towards a better and brighter future.
They say the sky’s the limit but I’m aiming for the stars further out in our galaxy, I have a long way to go. If this is the success, I need to call a consumer service representative. Not to complain, but to discuss the terms of this so-called “success.” There are a few things missing that we need to talk about; I would like an endless supply of romance for instance. I’ve buckled up for the bumpy road, I’m ready for my next rocket launch.