Olek is the prolific crochet artist known best for disrupting public spaces by swathing dull stone, concrete, and brick with enormous, sometimes intricate yarn hoods. While she’s spent the last 15 years living in Brooklyn, her reach as an international artist seems to be expanding ever outward from the city where she started her art career.
“Of course I’ll be always Polish– I actually just met the Polish president recently,” she told us. “But I like working everywhere– my work changes from place to place, so it’s important for me to travel and create these pieces all over the world. That’s what I hope I can continue doing, it’s exhausting, but people’s reactions are the best reward.”
We sat down with Olek at the Rumney Guggenheim gallery a couple weeks back, on top of her white crocheted installation, awash in the glow of videos depicting winding and unwinding crochet homages to women artists like Frida Kahlo and Kara Walker. We talked about her creative process, what’s up next for the artist, and why you shouldn’t caller her a “yarn bomber.”
Your performance at Union Square in October made me realize how intensive crocheting is. I kept coming back within the period of an hour and it seemed like nobody had made any progress. How long did this go on for?
The performance was three hours long, but you could never see the progress, because we were unraveling and making new again. It’s the idea that the woman’s work never ends. It’s a really powerful statement, so if you came back after an hour, you could never see where we were actually in the work.
Right! It was really interesting, it was mostly men staring at us. It was quite bizarre and that was after we put the aprons on. My sister collaborated in this project and she said when she put the apron on, some men started hitting on her. She was like, “This is bizarre! That’s what these men want us to be?!”
So mostly men were looking at us, and some people were thinking it was a competition. How interesting. I think it’s all great, that’s the whole point. The work just mirrored the reactions, what people understand what it is that we are doing.
Yes, we had several meetings and rehearsals about posture, how we were going to stand. Because I wanted it to look like we were all together, we were all one. Most of the performers were volunteers, a few of them are my assistants, some of them I used to work with in the past.
I put a call on Instagram asking if people wanted to participate in a public performance. A lot of people came and it was very nice to see they wanted to be part of an action, because they also understood what the work was about. That was a powerful statement.
I did this kind of piece alone, a while back, but I felt like I wanted to recreate this with a bigger group of people. I hope I can do it again with an even bigger crowd. My dream would be to make this piece at the same time in different locations around the world, like different groups of people crocheting, you know? I think it would be very powerful.
Oh yeah, I can teach. Actually my assistants are better at teaching than me, because I learned on my own, so I don’t have typical rules that other people have. Some people learn by books, there are different ways to do stitches and then when you look at my work, it’s very different.
I learned when was a little kid. I think I was maybe in the 3rd grade, 4th grade, maybe even younger. Growing up in Poland, it was a socialist country, so there was nothing, really. Like, really nothing. You couldn’t go to a store to buy art supplies for kids, so you had to be very creative and make things out of nothing, really. So I’d collect things, from leaves to shells, pieces of wood. I would create different sculptures and things out of that.
Every day we had someone deliver milk bottles to the door and I’d collect the tin cup, every day throughout the whole year and at the end of the year I could make Christmas decorations, for example. Crochet is kind of the same way, it was like, “Oh, I can make things with strings.” That’s the way it started for me, to create something out of nothing.
Later it was very useful for me, when I came to the United States and I was really, really broke. I’d just graduated from a university in Poland and I came the US when I was 22. I was asked to create a costume for this performance, but I couldn’t buy a sewing machine. So I started creating pieces with crochet, and I started creating installations and set design. That’s how I started. This is how I developed myself as an artist.
I hope that I always challenge myself as an artist. I also like to think that I like to reuse and repurpose things. Like the public sculptures that I do, I just highlight things in the environment. I take the public sculpture that already exists and I give it new skin and new meaning. This is because one of my big influences is Marcel Duchamp, I called one of my first pieces, “Crochet Readymades.”
When I first lived here I would pick up furniture from the street, because people throw away beautiful furniture. So I’d collect it off the street to furnish my apartment and sometimes they were really destroyed so I would crochet the furniture. I had my first show in 2010, my first big solo show and I was like, “I don’t know what to show!” And my friends were like, “You just have to show your apartment.” So the pieces in the show were actually my furniture and then they were moved to the Smithsonian exhibition and I became kind of homeless because my apartment was traveling everywhere with my furniture: my bed, my dresser, my TV, my everything.
You said something really interesting about crocheting, it’s on your Twitter handle and on your website: “My madness becomes crochet.” What does that mean to you? I understand it as a meditative, therapeutic sort of thing, right?
People always think crocheting is a very meditative process but if you have a certain piece and you know it’s going to take you maybe 100 hours to do, it’s like “Oh my God, it’s starting again!” Crocheting, you know, is a language. It’s my language, it’s the way I communicate. Whatever I create in my mind, this is the way I can illustrate it. That’s what it is, and my mind is crazy and twisted in many different ways.
I realize that I’m still learning to crochet, there are so many different ways of crocheting. The way I crocheted five years ago, I look at those pieces now and I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t crochet like this anymore.”
If you go to different countries, people have specific techniques. It’s beautiful to travel and see that, and be influenced by that. There’s a small village in Poland, in the mountains– it’s a very tiny village, and everybody crochets there. I visited there, actually, a few years ago. Somebody dropped me there, and I went into a store, and said, ‘Hey do you crochet?’ and they said, “Come in!” And they were showing me, they crochet this beautiful lace, it’s their specialty— the whole village. If you look at this lace, you know it came from that region.
The same with Portugal, for example. There’s a great Portuguese artist, Joana Vasconcelos, she does crochet pieces, but it’s a very particular Portuguese crocheting. There’s Irish lacing too.
I love learning and incorporating this into my work. You always try to stay involved as an artist. And this piece [at the Rumney Guggenheim exhibition] we crocheted everything, and then we unraveled everything. We destroy every piece that’s in this show to capture it in stop-motion animation to create the video pieces. The art is created out of its own destruction, it’s like when you’re drawing and using an eraser— you’re not just erasing things, you’re actually creating with the eraser, it’s the same thing here with this process of unraveling.
The animation reminds me a bit of Jan Švankmajer‘s animations.
Oh yes, the Czech animator. I love him. I studied film and I wrote my thesis about films. Films really influence me a lot. This piece, for example, when I did the portrait of Frida Kahlo here, I was watching movies about Frida Kahlo, everything I could find. And Kiki Smith, here. All these women that influenced these pieces, I was focusing to learn more about them through movies when I was making these pieces.
Yeah, that’s the thing— I studied cultural studies and I studied art. I wrote my thesis on costumes in the films of Peter Greenaway, and it was almost a statement on my own work in a way. I like how he borrows certain elements from paintings for his movies, so you have to have some sort of base in history to really understand his visual language. All these elements in his set designs that he creates for his movies, they all have some connection to art history. And I think that’s what I’m doing also, I like to create homages. I like to pay homage to women artists in particular, because of their work and their struggle, they opened the door for me. I can do what I’m doing right now because of what they’ve done in the past.
My life is much easier now than it was for women back then, but it’s still difficult being a woman artist, much more difficult than being a male artist, for example.
The pieces in the public are always going to be very different from the pieces in the gallery. Have you seen the piece in Chile? It’s gigantic, it’s a 25-meter-tall obelisk. This piece is always going to be different, because it’s a huge public piece. Very different from the piece that’s in the gallery. It’s a different way of crocheting. Those pieces relate to each other, of course, no matter if they’re out door or indoor. Also when you have a piece in public, you never know how long it’s going to last. I’ve had pieces stolen, burned, so in a way you have to set yourself up and know that something might happen to a public installation. So you don’t want to do lots of tiny crochets and then it will just cease to exist.
It’s so fascinating too, because your work is inherently street art but then again most street art is done very quickly, it’s about doing it and getting out of there. But yours, I feel like it has to take much longer, right?
Well, the pieces that are done illegally you can see how quick they are— the Astor Place cube, I installed this piece in 20 minutes. You have to do it. Of course I pre-make everything earlier. But I was so stressed, I didn’t know if it was going to fit. You only have one try, you can’t be like, “Oops, sorry!” You just have to actually do it.
I did the same thing in Barcelona and it was just like, it has to fit. You don’t have a second chance. I would go and look at these pieces and measure them, meditate on what elements I have to have to install it really quickly. The most important always is to make sure you can finish the piece. If I had time with those commissioned pieces, I’d probably crochet them in a different way. When you have those commissioned pieces, and you have a week to do it…I like the public art, because you have to make a decision and it has to be done much quicker.
I’ve been making my own clothes since I was a small girl, so I was always taking hand measurements and then as a costume designer, people were like, “Oh, you have to come take the measurements,” and I’d be like, “I already made the costumes.”
It’s a body, you know. I can make a dress for you right now just by looking at you. I can see the proportions. I think that helped me create the public-space pieces. The human body is the most complicated form, it’s the most beautiful form. So if you can make something for a person you can create something to fit a chair or a bowl, for example.
I really appreciate hand stitching and I think so many more people now are learning to appreciate the artist’s hand. That’s why I think people appreciate the work I do, because it’s actually done by hand. You can’t make crochet by a machine, it’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes people ask me, ‘What kind of machine do you have?’ and I say, “Oh, the machine is called Olek 2015.” There’s no machine! I could either spend my life developing the machine or crocheting, so I’m crocheting.
But at the same time I feel like crocheting is a really good match for video and projection mapping technique, combining the old and the new together.
I’m going to have this show next year at Virginia MoCAD– I went there last week, actually, and I’m going to be doing, there’s going to be a piece in the museum and they’ve also commissioned me to do a wall inside the museum and a public project that I’m doing in the community. I can’t tell you what it is, because I’m keeping it a secret, but I was there last year and I was stitching with this big group of people, I was sticking with high school students. I also what to incorporate the community, so everybody can add something to this piece. So even if you crochet a little piece, it’s going to be there in the public view. I want to incorporate the environment. If you incorporate that with the community you can really help.
This situation with the oceans right now, it’s really bad. So it’s like my really big statement, in Virginia Beach, it’s right next to the ocean, so it’s really important to them.
Your art has a strong political element, which is interesting because you come from Poland, which used to be a socialist country and the socialist tradition of public art is very different and you grew up around that. Your work is so colorful, too, and when I think of Socialist Realism or Soviet art, I think of it as grayscale, or at least emotionally very one-note.
Well, I crochet public sculptures, and maybe it’s because when I was a kid, I was forced to look at these ugly, socialist monuments, and I want to recreate them. When I was back in Poland, I was with my friends from elementary school and we passed by this one monument that still exists in my hometown and we said, ‘We have to crochet this monument next time I’m here.’ As a kid we would have to go there for some stupid socialist holiday they created, and we’d have to stand there and sing some little songs and wear these uniforms and stare at this monument.
Yes, I’m better now, but a few years ago, my wrist became so stiff I couldn’t use it anymore. And I had a friend who’s a dancer, and we traded— she taught me how to do yoga, and work out my wrists and shoulders. She very much saved me, I started doing Bikram yoga. That and vinyasa yoga are what keep me in shape, because it’s very important.
Before I make one of these pieces, I drink a lot of juice, and eat very healthy foods, and I don’t drink any alcohol and do a lot of yoga, so I can make art. I have to stay strong, because of course you don’t sleep much when you’re making these things, you just work, work, work. That’s my tradition when I have to focus on a project. I go into this full three days of craziness.
Everything is connected in a way, that’s what I like to say: there’s no difference between art and life. In my pieces, you can see my personal life through the years, you can see the people I was dating, you can see my personal life in these pieces. I found out my boyfriend was cheating on me and I crocheted about it. I crochet text messages I’ve received from different people. I make something that’s very personal to me, but also it’s very honest. But I hope it can become a universal message.
No, no. It’s quite interesting because I met some woman from Australia and she said, “Are you the Polish girl who created yarn bombing?” Yeah, the yarn bombing this is quite interesting because the New York Times did an article in 2011 where they interviewed a few different people including me and I said, I don’t do yarn bombing. Everyone said I separated myself from this movement. I think the concept is great, but I’m not necessarily crazy about the visuals. There’s no one artist there who actually has a visual language. With my work, you understand this is my work. If you are a visual artist, you have to create your own language to be recognized. And people started copying me, all of a sudden I’d see a crocheted bicycle. People are going to recognize that’s not original, which is very important when you’re making something.
But the whole idea of softening a public space, I think it’s a great concept.