It’s the first day of November in Miami and there are still hints of a short-lived cold front in the air. Olek, the New York-based artist, and I are sitting at a table outside the News Café on Ocean Drive.
Outspoken, intelligent, with a strong yet sensible character accentuated by a lingering Polish accent, Agata Oleksiak, known as Olek , is the sculptor, performance and street artist that has the world hanging on a crochet hook. But just like intelligent or outspoken fall short when describing her character, so do the words sculptor and street artist when it comes to her work.
Photo Credit: Hardy Mueller
“Crochet is my language,” she says, and like any other language it illustrates a universe that goes beyond simple communication: there’s history, there’s culture, there’s time. There are moments of brilliance and others of pain; there are stories that can be followed down to the core of what it means to be a human being. “A skein of yarn became my can of paint. I reweave the world as I see fit,” she writes in a piece about yarn-bombing a locomotive train in Lodz, Poland. For Olek, crochet is a way to communicate all the things that make up a life.
Born in Poland in 1978, Olek moved to New York at twenty-two, after completing her BA in cultural studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Until that point, the possibility of becoming an artist had been inconceivable. “Growing up in a communist country there’s no such thing as an artist, unless you’re gonna be painting for the communist leaders,” she explains. Yet she says she owes a lot of who she has become as an artist to that experience. “I would never wish for anybody to live under a communist system, but I think I took something good out of it: working with people together and creating public pieces that are not only there to beautify the place, but pieces that mean something.”
Reexamining the past and reconstructing history are recurring themes in her work and reflect this need to create art that is meaningful. “I (we) highlight existing truths, resurrect memories, honor history and memorialize dreams,” she says about resurrecting the El Cid statue in Seville, Spain. Olek searches for those narratives that have defined who we have become, as individuals and as a society, and shines a new light on them.
Her latest project, Love Across the USA- which she’s looking to bring to Miami soon- is all of this and more. It aims to celebrate the accomplishments of underrepresented Americans whose stories are often forgotten or left out of history books, by creating and placing crocheted billboards and large objects featuring their portraits and phrases in different cities across the US. So far, these have included figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nina Simone, and Marian Anderson, among others.
Olek and Love Across the USA Raleigh, NC team in front of Nina Simone billboard. Photo credit: Theresa Moore
It all began before the 2016 election, when Olek and her team worked on a crochet billboard of Hillary Clinton, with the phrase #ImWithHer, to support the candidate in her race for the presidency. The idea for a nation-wide collaborative project came to life soon after Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump awakened many to the realities of women’s rights in America. “I saw the ocean of pink hats, the pussy hats that women made, and I thought ‘All these women want to do something, they’re hungry to make something, but they don’t really know what,’” she says.
Rochester, NY community and Olek in front of Harriet Tubman billboard. Photo Credit: Olek
Olek displaying Love Across the USA's Philadelphia billboard of Marian Anderson. Photo credit: Olek
Olek recognized that at the core of that hunger lay a deeper, more universally felt emptiness: a lack of real connection. “I feel like we are so separated right now, we feel so connected because with social media everybody can get in touch, but we’re lacking human contact,” she says. That disconnectedness, be it from reality, from nature, from history, or from each other, is the foundation of most of the problems we face as a society today, including gender inequality.
“The focus, the final product, is the billboard we’re creating. But it’s not really what the project is about. The billboard is about getting people together,” she explains. Olek and her team offer a series of workshops, where they teach members of each community to crochet in a way that all the pieces will fit together. “Everybody is equal because everybody does one piece,” she says, referring to the two-by-two-foot square each person is tasked with creating. For her, crochet symbolizes the fabric of society, of pieces working together to make a whole. “If one person fails we all fail because I won’t have one piece. But we’re not going to fail because we are helping each other.”
Akron, OH community members crocheting Sojourner Truth billboard. Photo credit: Olek
With Love Across the USA, Olek is creating spaces where women, men, and children of different religions, ethnicities, generations, and economic or social backgrounds have the possibility to engage, to speak and be heard, to learn from each other’s experiences, all while working towards a common goal. “The project is about them,” she says. “We put our sweat into it, our tears, our love, and everything else, stitch by stitch. Everything is made by somebody’s hands.”
This is not the first time Olek involves the community in her work. In 2016, she worked alongside women refugees from Ukraine and Syria, their families and other members of the community, to create Our Pink House. Inspired by their stories, the project sought to illustrate the current refugee crisis by covering two old homes, one in Sweden and the other in Finland, in pink crochet.
“We could have done this over the phone, but we actually met,” she tells me. “It means a lot; I feel like people are forgetting that.” What Olek says is true; today, it’s easier to take the value of an in-person interaction for granted. But there’s something about people gathering that is inherently human; something that, no matter how distracted we get, we’ll always crave.
That’s because the essence of a person is not only in their experiences or heritage, but in their unspoken gestures, their quirks and mannerisms, and the way they interact with their surroundings. The lack of real connection, of human contact, inadvertently creates a space for assumptions and stereotypes to grow in and divide us. Love Across the USA is a reminder that the best way to develop the empathy we need to close that gap is by being present. Olek is right, crochet is a language, and it is helping weave together a new kind of history: one where we can recognize the value in every person’s story.
Visit www.loveacrosstheusa.com to learn more about the project.
Check out Olek's work at www.damniwishihadyou.com
IG: @oleknyc and @loveacrosstheusa