CULTURE & ARTS

Nationwide Art Project Is Making Space For Historic Women In All 50 States

“I want to honor women who fought their entire lives to open the doors for women like me. Women who still don’t have enough space in history books.”

Just before the presidential election in November 2016, Polish-American artist Olek revealed which candidate was getting her vote by hanging a massive portrait of Hillary Clinton over a New Jersey highway. Upon closer inspection, what initially appeared to be a billboard was actually ― in Olek’s signature style ― a 16-by-46-foot neon pink blanket, entirely crocheted by hand. 

Days later, Olek, like the rest of the world, learned that Clinton had lost the election and Donald Trump was to be president of the United States. “I immediately thought, I wish I had done more,” Olek told HuffPost in a phone call. “Then I thought: ‘Wait a second, I still can.’”

Olek, born Agata Oleksiak, moved to the United States from Poland in 2003 and describes herself as a “young American and an old Pole” accordingly. At 38 years old, she is known for her experimental yarn creations, which combine the art of crochet ― with its traditional connotations of domestic “women’s work” ― with the tactics of guerrilla street art.

Her most iconic creations, or “yarn bombs” as they’re often dubbed, include covering the Wall Street bull sculpture with pink and purple camouflage and crocheting a massive fictionalized edition of The New York Times. Olek’s current project is as much about the process of its creation as the final result. 

Crochet piece with Olek at SewGreen Rochester in Rochester, New York, on May 7.
Crochet piece with Olek at SewGreen Rochester in Rochester, New York, on May 7.

Titled “Love Across the USA,” the piece will consist of 50 portraits of women who changed American history, displayed throughout all 50 states. “I want to honor women who fought their entire lives to open the doors for women like me,” Olek said. “Women who still don’t have enough space in history books.”

The artist will travel from state to state until 2020, inviting local community members to help create each work. This community collaboration is where the real impact of Olek’s project takes place.

“We’re living in a time when people are stuck to their computers,” she said. “I want to get people out of their homes, out of their habits. Community is so important. I’m getting people together.”

Olek isn’t sure exactly which women she will honor throughout the series, although she mentioned Nina Simone, Sojourner Truth and Michelle Obama as some names on her list. She plans to honor women who are significant to each state, hopefully illuminating some lesser-known heroines who have not been sufficiently recognized on a national stage. 

An inkling of Olek’s idea for the project emerged on election day, when Olek noticed viral photos and videos of women attaching their “I Voted” stickers to Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Rochester, New York. “It made me think, in the year 2020, women will only have been able to vote in this country for 100 years,” Olek said. “I knew I had to start with Susan B. Anthony.” 

In March, coinciding with Women’s History Month, Olek made the trek to Rochester to begin the project. She reached out for volunteers on social media beforehand, inviting crochet masters and novices alike to join her in the process. Over 200 volunteers gathered at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, New York, where Olek held a crochet workshop for anyone interested in learning the basics.

Using donated materials from Red Heart Yarn, each participant constructed a two-by-two-foot square, following a pattern Olek distributed. The squares were then combined to yield a towering portrait of a feminist icon. 

Susan B. Anthony ended up being Olek’s second subject; the first, whose image was hung in early May, depicts abolitionist Harriet Tubman. “I couldn’t choose, I had to do both,” Olek said. Alongside Tubman’s face reads the quote: “Slavery is the next thing to hell,” written against a shocking pink backdrop. Anthony’s portrait, currently in the works, will be revealed later in the month.

“I could not choose between Harriet and Susan,” Olek told HuffPost, adding that she “broke her rule” by choosing two subjects. The artist hopes to create at least one portrait in all 50 states but clearly is not opposed to adapting her mission along the way. 

Olek described her experience working with local crocheters in Rochester as “incredibly powerful.” She described working with collaborators in their 70s, who had been crocheting since before Olek was born, who worked late nights that creeped into mornings. She described working with fathers and sons who had never crocheted before, yet were eager to learn and help. 

The project is open to men and women of all political views. While crocheting together for hours on end, Olek explained, the volunteers often communicate about the many challenges of living in 2017. “We talk about what it means to be a women, what it means to support women,” Olek said. “We talk about health care, family, education. People form new friendships.”

Beyond the physical existence of the works, it is the intimate experience of working with strangers that brings Olek the most pride. “Making pieces in my studio is not the same as going into the world,” she said. “I see the effect, how public art can change people. It’s not only about seeing the piece, but the impact the work has on the community.”

Although the project was triggered in part by the election, Olek doesn’t describe her piece as explicitly political. “I want to go to red states, I want to go everywhere,” she explained. “Often artists don’t go to the smaller places, those are often the places that need us. Those people are equally important to the democracy of this country.”

Eventually, Olek hopes to develop a computer program that can help individuals create their own crochet patterns. Then they too can pay homage to the women who inspire them, by printing patters and crocheting from there. 

When describing how she landed upon her title for the ambitious endeavor, “Love Across the USA,” Olek recalled her experience preparing for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., this January and deciding which sign to take with her. “I had this older piece in my studio that said, ‘Love Always Wins. Haha Not Really,’” she said.

“But then I realized, the times we live in are really bad. I can’t be sarcastic anymore. I ripped the last line from my piece and took ‘Love Always Wins’ to the march at D.C. I think love is so powerful it can conquer anything.” 

Follow “Love Across the USA” on Facebook to keep updated with Olek’s work and volunteer in your hometown. You can also email LoveAcrossTheUSA@gmail.com to get involved. 

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