Growing up in a “gray, industrial” part of Poland, the now Brooklyn-based textile artist known as Olek always felt that she was different. “If you wear bright colors there, everything gets dirty,” she says. “I was always dressed differently; that’s who I am.”
Today, Olek is a Brooklyn-based textile artist with innumerable works under her belt—colorful, crocheted installations that have popped up across the globe in Chile, India, Poland, Spain, and elsewhere, but also, of course, in New York. “I think there’s no line between life and art,” Olek says. “Everything is connected.
“You can look at my pieces and see a real life story in my work, what I’m doing, what I’m seeing, who I’m loving, who I’m hating, what I’m thinking—politically, on different social levels, the causes I support,” Olek says. “Everything is in my work.”
But before she was Olek, she was Agata Oleksiak, twenty-two years old, fresh out of college, and ready to take a risk with her life. In 2000, on the advice of her American English teacher—”Poland isn’t ready for you and you have to move to New York”—she arrived at JFK airport “with like fifty bucks and a backpack.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time but, for the next few years, Olek would be facing a Herculean task: working odd jobs to support herself, freelancing as a theater and costume designer on the side, and all the while also taking classes at LaGuardia Community College for an American degree. “I think I didn’t sleep at all back then,” Olek says. “That was crazy.”
At LaGuardia, the stars aligned when she signed up for an art class “just to pass easily.” Olek had always been drawing and painting, but the feedback in Poland had been mostly negative—along the lines of, “This isn’t art” or “This is bad.” Since she was looking “to do fashion and costume design” anyway, this class was just supposed to tick off some credits.
But something about Olek stood out, and an art professor had insisted that she take his sculpture class. “You’re an artist. You have to pursue this career as an artist,” he had said. She had resisted and then signed up, and the first assignment was a bust. “Being a sculptor doesn’t mean that you have to work with traditional materials like plaster, stone, or bronze,” the professor had announced, and so Olek could work with fabric.
At the time, Olek was living in Greenpoint and on a budget, so she went “to a 99-cents store and bought whatever they had for the money I had in my pocket”: clotheslines, ropes, strings, and “things really for domestic use.” She went home and then worked into the night. “In the beginning, I was braiding the materials like you braid hair,” she says. “I was gluing things. But nothing worked well.
But Olek was destined to experience a vaguely Newtonian incident while she was still an art student, figuring out her path: In a moment she now compares to having a skein of yarn drop on her head “from an undiscovered planet,” Olek struggled with “failures, one after another,” before suddenly realizing, “I can crochet it!”
“I found this hook that I had from my costume design work, and I started crocheting it,” she says, the excitement rising in her voice. “I made this piece in one sitting, then I took a nap for like an hour and I had to go to school.” She put the piece in a “big garbage bag because I was ashamed of it,” dropped the sculpture off in the classroom, and then—”I ran away.”
She needn’t have worried; her professor declared the work to be “brilliant.” This, he said, is what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, “and you’re only going to stop if you cut your hands off.” But first, there was the issue of her name—too long, too unpronounceable, too unremarkable. “You can’t be like ‘Abracadabra,’ he said. (“I was like, ‘Abra-what?'”) He continued, “Like Magdalena Abakanowicz—she’s a great sculptor but her last name is too long. Nobody remembers her. You are Olek from now on.”
And thus, in that instant, Olek was born. “Then I exploded,” says Olek. “I started crocheting different things in the school, like, illegally. I’d crochet corridors. I’d crochet the swimming pool. I’d come in on a Saturday with ladders when nobody was in school and I’d crochet a huge installation.”
In the summer of 2004, a professor recommended Olek for a group show at the now-closed Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery in Chelsea. “They gave me a huge room to do an installation,” she says, and so she poured all of her efforts into that show, which included not just her sculpture, which spilled out of the room through the window, but also multiple dancers in crocheted costumes—an early glimpse of her work to come.
In his review of that opening, the New York Times’s Holland Cotter declared that Olek, “has energy and gives the show…a tour-de-force center to work around.” It seemed like all at once, she had made her first foray into the art world, bagged her first review, and sold her first sculpture. “I guess this is what I’m doing right now,” she decided, and everyone else agreed.
After that first show eleven years ago, Olek’s work gained tremendous momentum: She exhibited in Italy, in Poland, in Turkey, in Washington, DC, in Philadelphia, and at the Chelsea Hotel in quick succession. Her work was on view in numerous New York City galleries, collecting review after review, and pushing her further into the spotlight. Meanwhile, Olek continued picking up part-time gigs to support herself (eventually landing an art teacher job at a local elementary school), and crocheted at night.
“I was so exhausted,” she says. “I would take a nap in my studio [after teaching elementary school] and work all night. It was just too much for me. I thought that if only I could concentrate on my art, I could make huge progress.”
Olek’s moment finally came in 2008, right before the economy crashed, when she decided that she had to get off the fence—either she was going to live her life as a full-time artist or…else. “I think when you can survive that time, you can survive anything else,” she says, remembering her brief moment of panic after she received her termination letter from the elementary school. “As an artist, you have to very quickly figure out how much you’re going to charge people for what.” She adds, “You have to take the risk, I guess.”
But it was a calculated risk. By then, Olek had already honed her craft, made a name for herself in the city, and accepted that nagging feeling she had of ‘being called’ to this profession, with a greater purpose. “Being an artist is just a transformation or a tool that I have to talk about my ideas,” she says. “Once you’re a public person, you have a responsibility to society.”
With that in mind, she’s stayed the course, using her crochet to speak out about women’s rights, LGBT rights, ocean conservation, freedom of expression, and other humanitarian causes around the world. “The pieces are very difficult to do,” she says. “Any piece that you try to do with any message, it’s harder to do it. You have to push for it.”
At this point, Olek has assistants in New York and Poland whom she has trained and who help her “with crocheting different patterns” for her monumental works, most recently: the gigantic obelisk in Santiago, the large traditional Hawaiian canoe, the women’s shelter in New Delhi (for which she also hired local women), and the Jan Karski statue and bench in front of the Polish General Consulate in New York. In October, she’s going to begin “a huge public project, involving the community and talking about environmental issues and recycling” with the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.
“When people stop what they’re doing for a second and they start thinking [about the art], I think that’s the most important thing for me as an artist,” Olek says. “If I can achieve that, then I can keep going.” But, she adds, “I’m always scared. I’ve done so many pieces, but every new attempt, I’m freaking out.
“I’m always like, ‘I don’t know what to do; I don’t have enough time; I don’t have enough materials. Can I handle it?’ There’s always this moment,” she says. “But the fear is what keeps me going in a way. It’s good to have that little fear and to remember that you’re human.”
So, when Olek earnestly tells me, “I think I’m still learning how to crochet,” I’m reminded of Auguste Renoir, who declared almost on his deathbed, “I am just beginning to learn how to paint.” One of the greatest masters of all time, he was even then—like Olek—still seeking something yet unattained.