After years of yarn-bombing countless objects on the street, like bikes, shopping carts, and even the Wall Street Bull, renowned fiber artist Olek made an overtly political statement when she covered a billboard overlooking a New Jersey state highway with a crocheted mural of Hillary Clinton with text that read, "#ImWithHer." Then, on election night, with a crowd of Clinton supporters at New York's Bowery Hotel, Olek watched in dismay as the results came in. "As I began to realize that Hillary would not win, the first thing I thought to myself was that I should have created more billboards across the USA and done more to support her campaign," Olek tells Creators.
Now, the Polish-born artist is making good on that resolution with Love Across the USA, an ambitious project in which Olek will travel from state to state, working with local communities to crochet billboard-sized murals of inspirational figures like Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Hillary Clinton.
As a New York City resident, New York State seems like a natural place for Olek to begin the project, but there was more to her decision to start the project in Rochester than just proximity. Olek says a picture she saw on election day of Susan B. Anthony's gravestone covered in "I Voted" stickers struck her. "The stickers on Susan B. Anthony's grave was a really strong image for me and inspired me to start with her. Because she had spent so much of her life in Rochester, it was a logical first stop." But even in the first state of the project, Olek says she couldn't limit herself to just one crocheted mural. "While learning more about the area, I also discovered that Harriet Tubman had lived in nearby Auburn, and it was impossible to choose only one piece!"
Love Across the USA isn't Olek's first project involving the cooperation of volunteers in various communities. For several of her recent projects she has traveled to different places and given free crochet workshops to local volunteers who then help to create her public artworks. Just last year Olek traveled to Sweden and Finland to create Our Pink House, in which a house was completely covered in pink crocheted fabric. Olek says she has a lot of reverence for these processes. "A while back, while working on community-based pieces, I understood that, as an artist working in public spaces, the power of these projects is beyond the physical existence of the piece. It's everything leading up to the installation and the reaction once it's revealed to the public," she explains.
The potential for community oriented projects to provide a cathartic outlet for those involved seems to be the ultimate motivation for Love Across the USA. And, according to Olek, the project has already been a success. "After the Harriet Tubman installation, we met one woman's daughter who told us how the project had given her mom a renewed motivation following the recent death of her husband of many years. The stories of how this work can help to empower women are moving and give me motivation to continue," she says.
Although she has only just completed the first state in a nationwide effort, Olek has already worked with hundreds of volunteers to create millions of stitches. And she and her team are planning to make the project even more ambitious and whimsical in the future. "My girls and I are dreaming of a van that runs on a vegetable oil, is wrapped in pink, and is our new home in between states. I would also like to find a filmmaker who would jump on the road with us, as it is looking like a fascinating journey around this country during these challenging times."
But it could be that a combination of ambition and whimsy that will active communities throughout the country to become more caring toward one another. "It's really inspiring to see how strangers can join forces and work toward one goal. People who have different beliefs, who might not normally be friends, can come together to work. I know that each place will be different and it might bring various challenges, and I will do my best to treat each with a new fresh energy and be open to what it might bring."
For now, Olek says that the next Love Across the USA destination is still a secret, but in the meantime she will be exhibiting at the Urban Nation Museum in Berlin and the Avesta Museum in Sweden.