When you think about crochet, typically the first image that comes to mind is someone’s grandma sitting in a rocking chair and knitting together an afghan blanket and probably some doilies while sipping a nice cup of tea. You don’t typically expect to walk down a New York City street and find a random bike fully covered in colorful crocheted yarn or come across a stretch of chain link fence with a huge crocheted message across it. Olek has been altering people’s perception of what type of person should be crocheting, how crochet can be used, and what is considered fine art. From crocheting the entire contents of her apartment to yarn bombing the Astor Cube, Olek has proven that crochet isn’t just for grandmas anymore.
Having publicly exhibited crocheted objects all over New York City and other parts of the world, Olek recently joined 15 other contemporary artists to exhibit her work during the Open Canvas initiative, a week-long installation changing North 6th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn into an interactive outdoor art exhibition. She transformed an 80 foot-long piece of chain link fence into a huge crocheted mural reading, “All We Need is ♥ & $,” enveloped a parked van in crocheted yarn with the message “The End is Far,” and covered a bike with a pink, yellow, and green yarn camouflage print that was chained up to a crochet-wrapped bike rack. On the first day of the Open Canvas installation, Green Label spoke with Olek about her three crocheted pieces on North 6th Street, how she approaches crochet as an art form, and the transient nature of street art.
How did you get involved in the Open Canvas initiative and why?
Producers for different labels approach me all the time for projects and what I like about this one is that they gave me full creativity. They said do whatever you want to do, say whatever you want to say, use any colors you want to use, and I'm like, "Well perfect!" You know, this is what the artist wants to do. That's why I chose this 80-foot long fence.
What is your work here about? What’s the idea behind it?
I just started doing these messages about a year and a half ago when I was in London making crochet graffiti with different quotes that I wanted to share with the public, so that's kind of what I chose for this neighborhood, for this place. It actually relates to my show with Jonathan Levine Gallery that I had in February and it was almost supposed to be the title of my show, but I changed it to "The End is Far," which is actually on the back of the van I crocheted [at Open Canvas]. There's all a connection that people don't realize. Of the pieces I created for the show, one piece says, "All We Need is Love and Money," which is on the fence, and I believe that every message and anything I create is very personal and relates to my own personal story, problems, dramas, love, or whatever happens in my life, but then I really hope the way I'm going to create it will be universal. Anybody who might pass by can find something there. Especially since this is street art; it's public art so in a way, you want to communicate with the passerby, strangers, people who are not exposed to art to give them a message, give them something to take and experience, and inspire them.
How long did it take you to crochet your work here today? How much yarn did you have to use to complete it?
(Laughs) I can never answer these questions. I started in 1978 - that's the answer. I can never say how much yarn I've used either. I just will have a pile of yarn and it just comes and goes. Do you ask an artist how much paint they use on a canvas? We don't think that way. If I had a business, I would have to know exactly what my inventory was, but it's not like that. I'm such a mess, you know? I just want to make art.
One time someone in Poland asked me if you unravel the yarn, how long would it be and I said, “You know what? Take it!” I gave them a small piece and said, “You unravel it and you measure how long it is,” and they actually did it. It was as long as a few blocks, so if I unravel the fence piece, I could probably connect New York to Poland.
When and how did you first learn to crochet?
I learned by myself. Everything I do in my life, I kind of learn on my own. I grew up in Poland, in socialism, so there was nothing. In a way, we were forced to be very creative on a daily basis. You have to be creative for cooking or to make clothes and as a kid, you can't go to the store and buy new art supplies, so I remember collecting anything. For example, we got milk bottles delivered everyday so I would collect the bottle caps and then I would have a whole year's worth and could use them to make Christmas decorations. Crochet came the same way for me. I wanted to learn and use something and make things for myself as a kid. When I came to the States in 2000, 13 years ago, I wanted to make costumes for dance companies or whatever, and a friend asked me to make costumes for her, but I had something like $50 in my pocket for the whole time I was here and I couldn't buy a sewing machine. I realized I could connect pieces of fabric with crocheting, and that's really how it started. That ability to create something from nothing that I learned because I had to as a kid, it was really useful when I came here to New York and I started making art out of things that I found somewhere.
What was the first object you crocheted and why?
My first object was a step ladder and it was the first object I ever sold. It was on Christmas and I was staying at my girlfriend’s place. When she was working and I was bored, I decided to crochet the step ladder she had. It was after I did a lot of different things with crocheting, like the costumes and wearable sculptures, in 2001, I crocheted a swimming pool at a community college, but the step ladder was really the first object and later, in 2004, I had my first show in a gallery that unfortunately doesn't exist anymore and I brought the step ladder to put up my installation. Then I put it in a closet so it was out of the way. Some collectors came before the opening and found it in the closet. They thought it was amazing so they took it out and put it in the middle of the room and someone bought it, but it was just my step ladder! So it's interesting that it's the first object I ever crocheted and the first that sold.
Why do you choose to crochet objects?
I also like my pieces to be crochet readymade. I love Marcel Duchamp for this readymade concept, he created this whole ready-made theory, so I use objects that already exist and I transform them with my crochet. I give them a new identity, a new skin. I also did this crochet apartment. The story is very simple. I was in New York and I found all my furniture on the street and they were ugly so I decided to cover them so my whole apartment was all these colors and camouflage and then I had a solo show opportunity. I felt like I had nothing to show, but then realized that my apartment was actually my exhibit. It ended up being a whole exhibition in a gallery. It's important in my work that there's no difference between life and art.
You’ve crocheted Astor Cube, the Charging Bull, and a full billboard in Oakland– If you could crochet any monumental thing in the world and had unlimited resources, what would you choose and why?
There are endless possibilities! I realize I crochet a lot of things that move, like bicycles and cars and I'm going to do a locomotive on July 13th in Poland, a whole locomotive. It's going to be gigantic, 30 meters long. There are things like the White House that would be a great statement to crochet, but I think I have to wait until a woman becomes President. That will be my moment. I'll be waiting for it. There are so many different wonderful things. I would love to do bridges. Public work moves everybody not only the art crowd, but anybody can take something from those pieces for themselves. I think I can never stop making public pieces. The billboard in Oakland was an illegal work. Sometimes I think if I wasn't an artist, I would probably rob banks, so it's a good thing I'm an artist.
Crochet is typically a craft that people think of as something an old lady would do like knitting or quilting. How do you push people’s views about the art of crochet?
Any art form shouldn't be considered for younger people or older people. I think I make crochet very sexy and very popular, and I make it hip and edgy. That's great. I love that it's become so accepted. Everyone thinks I just started a few years ago because the [yarn bombing] movement has become so popular, but I had a show in 2004. It took me a really long time to be accepted by the fine art community. I think because street art accepted me first, it was very interesting because when I spoke to these legendary artists like my friends Futura and Kenny Sharf, we talk about my form of art as one thing that connects with graffiti and my work - it's not even the illegal part - it's that both art forms were not accepted by the art crowd for a really long time. It takes a really, really long time to push it and to continue to do it and make stronger pieces so people will actually start noticing it, that there's something there.