Olek at Tony’s Gallery, photo by GSA
Olek is an artist in demand. She spends much of her time traveling between the galleries that are fawning over her for her unique crochet creations. Life has not always been so kind to Olek - until a few years ago she was essentially homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches in New York after moving from her native Poland.
She rekindled her childhood crocheting skills and her friends started asking her to crochet things for them to make a little money. Technically talented and with an extreme work ethic, hats and scarves quickly became objects and then whole rooms. Museums are now offering to buy her installations whole.
I should say that I didn’t plan to interview Olek at all. I walked past her latest show at Tony’s Gallery on my way home and wandered in off the street. I saw the stunning view of Olek’s crocheted boudoir from the wide window at Tony’s Gallery. Aesthetically, the show is completely engrossing. A small gallery and its garden utterly covered in yarn: mannequins, telephones, a shopping trolley and even a man being casually covered in crocheted fabrics in the corner. Had I known the title of the show (“I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone”) I might have walked past because it’s a starkly depressing title.
Scissor lift, New York, photograph by Olek
As I walked in Olek peered at me over her glasses (also crocheted). Having missed the shoe covers in the corner I spent the next ten minutes in my socks, photographing the room and garden where Olek has collaborated with the artist Malarky.
I was still taking pictures when Joao, a stocky cameraman, turned up to film Olek. However, there was no one to ask questions. After casually taking photos as I do, Tony asked me if I would interview Olek. Sure, why not? There was even a free beer in it.
We walked over to Olek’s crocheted bed, where she sometimes sleeps, and sat down on a quilt, which turned out to be a long crocheted email. Olek’s pink coat works as perfect camouflage in her installation but let’s be clear about one thing – Olek is an intensely intelligent woman who could tear me to shreds if she wanted, before crocheting me back together.
Olek’s first demand was that I only ask her questions she hadn’t heard before. Knowing nothing about her work, that was always going to be a challenge. No matter though, whatever question I asked was met with a volley of information delivered at a lightning pace. You don’t interview Olek; she tells you what you should be asking.
Detail from “I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone.”
Immediately, the naïve impression that Olek’s work is cute evaporates as she peers at you over her glasses. Her work is conceptual and much of it relates to the preservation of things that are fleeting in modern life. Olek has spent a lot of time crocheting snippets of conversation, text messages and emails, many from past lovers. Olek makes permanent representations of transient emotions, sharing them with viewers.
Drawing your attention and making you pause is one of Olek’s great strengths. This is reflected in her street work too. By crocheting everyday objects like the Wall Street Bull, Olek makes your attention linger. That was her comment on the global financial crisis and the role of banks. “You have to work with what’s already there” she says.
Wall Street Bull, photograph by Olek
Olek watches movies when she’s crocheting, often for ten hours a day. She has plenty of symbolism to choose from. Her thesis was also on symbolism in film, focusing on the director Peter Greenaway.
“So, how do you feel about the yarn bombing movement?” Olek looked at me like I’d just wiped my dick on her crocheted carpet. “My work is conceptual. I’m not interested in sitting down crocheting over cups of tea. This is my life. I’m an artist.”
If you haven’t seen Olek’s work in person I encourage you to go and see it. I get the sense you’re seeing an artist starting to crossing over into a different phase of her career, one where people who are paying are starting to know her and want to see her crochet on a larger scale. The photographs of her next project, crocheting a full Caterpillar mining truck, are guaranteed to be in national newspapers in many countries.