Born in Poland and currently based in New York, Olek has spent the last decade showing her unconventional crocheted works in the form of street art, performance art and now in museums and galleries worldwide. Her eccentric brand of art is fun, playful and interactive: she has sent participants onto the New York City subway in full-body crocheted suits and covered Wall Street’s “Charging Bull” statue in a knit. Here she chats with TIME about why she wants to cover the world in yarn.
How did you first become interested in crocheting?
I left Poland in 2000 and came to New York. I was super broke. I was asked to design a costume for a dance company and was very excited to do it, but I couldn’t afford to buy a sewing machine. I realized that I could connect those pieces together with a crochet hook. And that’s how it started. It was necessary for me to find a way to make a costume. But I couldn’t tell them that I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have a sewing machine. Actually, I didn’t even have enough fabric, so I would cut my old clothes or sheets in strips and connect those strips together and crochet into costumes. My career really picked up very quickly as a costume designer. Slowly I [moved] into set design, and from there to working on sculptures and installations. Also, with some of the dance companies we would do impromptu performances, putting crochet on the street. That’s how I think there was a connection to me as a street artist.
It also has a connection to my childhood. In Poland during communism we didn’t have anything in the stores. I was taught that you have to find things around you. We couldn’t go and buy a coloring book or something in a store. So I would collect anything that I could to make art. I would collect the thin caps from milk bottles the entire year to use them as decorations for Christmas. If there were old clothes, I would cut them and make the clothes for my dolls. Whatever I have around me, I will find a way to transform it into an art piece.
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Are you intentionally trying to bridge the divide between high art and folk art?
I hope. I think what happened with me was that I was accepted first by street artists. Futura 2000—he’s basically the godfather of graffiti—told me that what they were doing in the ‘70s was not accepted as fine art. What I was doing wasn’t really accepted as fine art. Street artists accepted me right away. And then I bridged to the next level. Being a woman and using a very traditional technique was difficult. I’m very happy that people right now see that we can do something so traditional and domestic and make it into fine art. It’s still labeled as a craft; it’s still labeled as a folk art. It’s time to change that.
Are you ever apprehensive about using personal details from your life in your work?
No. I would say there is no line between art and life, at least not for me. Anybody that ever dated me knows that sooner or later he or she is going to be incorporated in my work—personal emails, text messages, basically anything that I’m doing is very public. If you hide something, it always surfaces eventually, so instead of hiding I make it bigger and bolder. Years ago I started crocheting text messages. Text messages are the unfortunate way we communicate. It’s really quick. We read it; we delete it. The messages cease to exist, and I started making it permanent by crocheting those messages, to question: is this really what you spend your time writing? Is this how you express love? Is this how you express anger?
Some of your art is quite ephemeral. Does it sadden you to see it dismantled or taken down?
Life is ephemeral. The work in the gallery, hopefully, is not ephemeral and will stay forever—that’s my hope [laughs]. But the work on the street is ephemeral. I learned to not have too personal a connection with this work and let it go. In a way, the response that people have to it reflects the work and the work reflects what’s happening in society. [Sometimes] people don’t know what it is, so they prefer to destroy it than actually ask themselves a question.
Are there other artists that have been a big influence on you?
I’ve always thought that my way of crocheting was the way that Jackson Pollock was painting. My crocheting—I learned it on my own. But [my assistants] told me that if I learned the proper way, the work wouldn’t be the same. I always liked Marcel Duchamp because I say my first pieces were crocheted readymades. I took what some people would not find interesting anymore and gave that piece a new skein.
Can you tell us about the current exhibition that you’re preparing?
It’s truly brand new work and so different from everything else I’ve done in the past. The last year and a half was a really interesting time in my life. Not only the materials changed, but also the way I crochet. I did a workshop in a prison in Poland and taught the prisoners how to crochet. They were telling me how amazing it is that someone from outside wants them to work on something that is going to be put outside. They will never be able to see it because they’re doing their time. I realized that they crochet a different way—they crochet really tight. Crocheting is like handwriting; everybody crochets a different way. I realized that this has something to do with their situation, how they are captive inside, and it was interesting to see. I started crocheting a different way then. You really see the effects in my new work. I always hope that though what I crochet is very personal, that I make it more universal.
Olek’s latest exhibition, “The End Is Far,” will be on view at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York February 23 to March 23.