Now hard at work on the museum’s front lawn, as part of a Pow! Wow! Hawaii project, is Olek, the crotchet artist based in Brooklyn, New York. You may remember her marine-themed mural she did in the Doris Duke Theatre last year for World Ocean’s Day Hawai‘i. More recently she has had work on view at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
Best known for cosseting Manhattan’s Wall Street Charging Bull (by artist Arturo di Modica), Olek now turns her skills to a fiberglass outrigger canoe. As she worked on a “sail,” we sat on the already completed part and Olek spoke, in her listing Polish accent, about this installation she calls Respiratory System.
Why did you choose a canoe to wrap in crotchet?
I can do everything eventually! I’ve done bicycles, cars, even diggers, a train. I did a smaller boat a year ago, and I wanted to do something here that has a connection to the water. So when I heard about the Hawaiian canoe I loved the concept—there’s something of a connection between the crochet, which is a very old technique and I’m reviving it in a way, the same with traditional canoe, where people want to bond with the culture and tell people about the history. Even when we had a tour here two days ago, it seemed there’s a gap between generations, the older Hawaiian generation were almost forced to give [Hawaiian traditions] up, and the kids who are going back to it. I studied cultural studies, so all my projects have some connection with the culture and history of a place. That’s why I chose the canoe, to give it new life. People are passing here, and going “ohhh,” and thinking about it.
What about water is significant to you?
It’s important to preserve nature, and I think so many people still don’t realize the current situation of nature in general—not just oceans and seas, but nature in general. People are polluting it and it really hurts me. For this project I chose 90 percent of the materials are natural fiber or biodegradable, and I crocheted also a lot of sea creatures here, like seahorses, and I am also using skull as an element in my work, and also in a way it represents the dying environment, the dying sea, because it’s a canoe, so it’s like, OK, we love the water, we love tradition, but let’s be aware that if we don’t act right now, if we don’t change our behavior, it will cease to exist. That’s important to me to always have a message. Not only that it’s a beautiful piece of art, but hopefully it has a message to people on many different levels.
Where’s the skull?
Right here! It’s a big skull. There are smaller skulls here, seahorses here, butterflies, and all these elements all together are a drawing almost, you stitch them together to make one design. I hope I have messages to give to people, but then anybody can pass by and find their own interpretation in the piece, and find the details. I point out to people who didn’t know there are so many elements stitched together, but that’s the labor of love, you know?
You’re known for using a rainbow of colors in our work but you’ve gone a natural route on this.
Yes, I wanted to use natural tones. I used this material a long time ago when I first started crotcheting—I come from Poland and grew up partially on a farm and my grandparents used this material on the farm. It’s sisal—I like how it’s staining the white, and I love the smell of it. With the space here, I like the natural tones. I do change things from time to time depending on the location of the installation. Nice to have surprises! Plus this is more detail oriented piece. In comparison to scale this is a pretty small piece in my work, that’s why I chose small pieces—all this crotchet is really detailed, the smaller the piece is, the more I concentrate on details. It actually takes me longer to make than the big piece.
Where is the canoe from?
He’s a friend of Tre’ [Packard, of PangeaSeed]—Keoni Kino, he lent the canoe. He’s a firefighter and is an amazing guy. He is coming today to help put up the sail. He actually wants to take it out on the water to see how pictures would be on the water. Alright, if you think we can go for it why not? He’s very happy, that’s important to me. He owns it, and he’s happy that it has a new life, something different is happening with the canoe.
Why do you do what you do?
Working in public spaces is amazing. I see myself as a public artist. Engaging in the community and in a conversation. I always think my art in a way is a mirror of their reflection. Here, in the past few days people are passing by and telling stories. They ask the questions themselves, meaning my art make them think and reflect. When that happens, I feel very confident that art is very, like, “OK, I’ve done it.”
Born Agata Oleksiak, in 1978, in industrial Poland, OLEK’s art allowed her to leave her gritty, narrow-minded hometown of Silesia. Through colors and conceptual exploration OLEK’s art examines sexuality, feminist ideas and the evolution of communication, all with meticulous detail and total candor. OLEK consistently pushes the boundaries of fashion, art, crafts and public art, fluidly combining the sculptural and the fanciful. With the old fashioned technique of crocheting, she has taken the ephemeral medium of yarn to express everyday occurrences and inspirations, thus creating a metaphor for the complexity and interconnectedness of our bodies and our psychological processes. OLEK’s bursts of bright colors often mask political and cultural critiques woven into the fibers of installations, mirroring her respect for artists and writers. She highlights that which already exists in real time, in our environment. As an active supporter of women’s rights, sexual equality and freedom of expression, OLEK has used the broad appeal of her work to display her solidarity with those stifled by oppressive laws worldwide. Through her body of work, OLEK has always sought to bring color and life, energy and surprise to the living space. OLEK’s work has been exhibited in galleries, museums and public spaces worldwide, from Art Basel and Wynwood Walls in Miami, to the Brooklyn Museum in New York and The Smithsonian in Washington, DC. OLEK currently lives and works in Brooklyn.