New York City artist Agata Oleksiak, better known as Olek, met with GALO at her studio in the Lower Eastside late the night before the opening of her exhibition at the Jonathan Levine Gallery entitled The Bad Artists Imitate, the Great Artists Steal. The studio was sparsely lit. Yarn cascaded off of stools, workbenches, desks, and pooled in haphazard mounds. Olek was working furiously.

“I’m making a skirt for the opening. I made skirts for everyone else, and I thought, ‘Oh! I have nothing to wear,’ so I’m using the time, if you don’t mind of course,” she said with a generous smile, her nearly white, blond curls bouncing as she shifted her focus from the crochet work to our conversation.

For those who are unfamiliar, Olek’s trademark craft is crochet work. She is most known for her pop-up street installations that cover public sculpture, chained up bicycles, and even people in colorful knots of yarn. But for now, her needle oscillates seamlessly over a long black and white skirt. The color scheme is a far departure from her usual blend of pink, orange, and yellow.

The seed for the project began in 2004, when she first replicated the Annie Leibovitz photograph of Keith Haring. He stands slightly crouched on a coffee table in an ordinary living room. The entire set, Haring included, is painted with a series of Haring’s signature active figure. In Olek’s crocheted version, Haring is seated on the couch, and above the coffee table hangs a human chandelier, a la Louise Bourgeois’ Arch of Hysteria. But the actual inspiration for the show came when she was thinking of ways to pay tribute to Banksy, an English artist and political activist.

In February, she crocheted replicas of his balloon girl pieces all over New York. The release of the first balloon girl on Broome Street, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was timed to coincide with the Academy Awards, where the Banksy bio Exit Through the Gift Shop was being nominated for best documentary. But for her current installation, she chose another knot of inspiration from Banksy.

“I really liked the piece he did for the Bristol show that he did the quote by Pablo Picasso in stone,” she said. “And the quote says, “The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal.”’

Banksy carved this famous Picasso quote into stone, crossing out Pablo Picasso’s name and etching his own beneath. This is the title for her current show at the Jonathan Levine Gallery where she has recreated a number of famous artworks in crochet.

So much of Olek’s work is about honoring things that already exist.

“I’ve been doing this for a really long time, because I have a really strong background in art history and history in general,” she said.

At Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, Olek predominately studied art history. Despite being inclined toward the arts, she only ever imagined herself on the sidelines, a commentator rather than a creator.

“I’ve spent my first 24 years to avoid being an artist,” she said.

Olek had firmly determined that she did not want to become an artist, but she had little else plotted for the future. She knew that she wanted to leave Poland. On the advice of her English teacher, she secured a student visa to New York. Six days after graduating, she migrated west.

“I was really fresh and ready to go. I was ready to move. I was ready to change, change some things in my life, and I knew it had to start with a change in country,” Olek said.

Around the same time, the same English teacher that had encouraged her to move to New York in the first place was also heading there to pursue dance. The former English teacher introduced Olek to the dance world in New York and Olek began designing costumes for dancers on commission. As a recent émigré to the United States, and a student, Olek was short of funds and couldn’t afford a sewing machine. Swamped with pieces of fabric, she came up with an alternative to hand sewing each costume.

“I realized I can connect these pieces by crochet. And that was my first step into making things and then I made set design, and bigger and bigger things that translate really easily into art pieces,” she said, grabbing the skirt she’d been working on and shaking it. As I gathered my things, I saw her  pull at the pink yarn that connects the black and white panels that make up the skirt.

Outside of the Jonathan Levine Gallery on West 20th, the street was bursting with Olek’s work: a person seated inside a shopping cart vibrantly adorned with pinks and purples; a giant lift draped in the same sunset hues, and beneath it, a person wrapped in a crocheted bodysuit. Inside the studio was bustling.

Olek had crocheted ordinary household objects as usual: a mirror, a stationary bicycle, dumbbells, and a skateboard. Mixed in were the stolen art works: Banksy’s balloon girl, Annie Lebovitz’s portrait of Keith Haring, Louise Bourgeois’ Arch of Hysteria, the American flag, and a selection of famous quotes. Olek bounded through the room in the dress she crocheted the night before, her face sparkled and her lips were bright with magenta lipstick. She stopped to pose for pictures beneath a plaque displaying her name and the quote that inspired her show. It was then that I realized that perhaps Olek’s greatest talent lies not in her ability to steal, but in being able to take a highlighter to the world and identify art for the rest of us.

Olek’s show at the Jonathan Levine Gallery will run until August 27th.

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