Michael Olszewski: His Dark Materials

American artist Michael Olszewski charts the relationships that sustain life, and their passing, with thread. Employing crochet, appliqué and collage, he stretches and coils strings into miniature maps of his emotional landscape. “Solemn and emotionally serious” is how Jeremy Adamson describes Olszewski’s work held in the Smithsonian Institute’s permanent collection. It is a difficult observation to deny. But Olszewski’s dark, thoughtful works are also visually exquisite, a reminder that beauty can be found in even our most turbulent emotions.

In the mid-1970s, after two years of independent study that focused on weaving and surface design at Kansas City Art Institute, Olszewski embarked on an MFA in Fibre at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Here he established the materials and techniques he continues to use in his practice today. Abstract watercolours often accompany the development of his compositions, but it is the textures textiles provide that are his signature. Combined with this attention to texture, traces of Olszewski’s early training in graphic design and illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore are also apparent. Attention is given to minute details such as a single stitch, or the ghost of a selvedge stamp. Within the organic logic of his abstract compositions, there is a sense that the inclusion of every thread has been considered.

Since 2001, Olszewski has travelled to Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland where the Ballinglen Arts Foundation is based. This ongoing cycle of Irish residencies has afforded him time to consider the landscape that his family left when immigrating to America in the 1750s, but has also confirmed colours and textures he had previously known only instinctively. Here Olszewski has found a location to reconnect with the palette and forms that he has long explored: the dark, rich colours of a rain-soaked landscape and soft, windswept horizons. Alongside this clear connection to a specific space, there is also another texture that informs Olszewski’s practice: words. He has kept a journal for thirty-five years and the tangles of emotion writing puts to paper find, to his own admission, greater articulation in thread. Innermost (2004) and Disquiet (2008), for example, measure the size of an American legal pad (11 inches by 9 ½ inches). The latter recalls the memory of a letter he had tried to write decades earlier to a friend.

Elsewhere scale relates not to emotion put to pen and paper, but to the size of the artist’s body. The sixteen square inch format approximates the size of the artist’s own chest, which he explains is meant to act as a literal reflection of the intimate content he explores through his work. Over the past four years, his practice has specifically addressed the death of his mother from Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. The supporting roles he has occupied, from caregiver to eldest child are considered in these recent pieces. Grief is evident in the sombre palette of many works, but also palpable is the sense of a more varied emotional landscape. Colour choice, he explains, is used to “evoke a frame of mind or emotional state that is introspective.” The Sea Inside (2008) and Surge (2008), for example, suggest a whirlpool of emotion, but also perhaps a nest or burrow. Materials are twisted round and round in an effort – however elusive – to find a place to settle. Darkness, we may want to learn, also provides safety.

In contrast, the agitated surface of Exile (2008) suggests a niggling, frenetic anxiety with a black spiral of despair greedily demanding the viewer’s attention. Ignoring despair (if you can) allows for softer feelings to emerge, such as the coiling of white thread and the clear line providing balance that is set just off the centre of the work. A different tone again is apparent in Walls (2008). Set on a crochet background overlaid with squares of organza, Olszewski explains that the work was made with the camera’s viewfinder in mind, a symbol of his desire to “put an issue into focus for a clearer understanding”.

Memento (2006) is far more peaceful than some of his recent works. Expanses of flat cloth provide breathing room for details: a square of cream coloured crochet sits under a thin line of ribbon on the bottom left of the composition; three loose red stitches echo the prominent red stripes found in the fragment of attached cloth; a wavering repair line, much like a scar breaks the geometry that makes up the background. Andrea Packard, Director of the List Gallery, notes in her excellent catalogue essay for Olszewski’s recent exhibition at the venue, “To know that… the red silk is a fragment of an American flag does not reveal the essence of Memento.” Olszewski provides more history, explaining to me that the fragment was found on the pathway to his mother’s gravesite in a veteran’s cemetery, where both his parents are buried, on the day before his mother’s burial. But Packard is correct. These works establish their own vocabulary to articulate memory beyond facts.

Olszewski sees his work as primarily about the meaning his chosen materials convey. “Although my work employs traditional craft and hand techniques,” he explains, “the techniques are not vehicles unto themselves. The work expresses my concerns, rather than simply being about the manipulation of materials.” His working process is intuitive. “I pay attention to what piece is telling me,” he explains. What he hears comes from a place where emotions simple and complex, rather than the intellect, rule.

Embroidery magazine (Sept./Oct., 2009: 36-39)