Embroidered Emotions

By Sartorius, Tara Cady | Arts & Activities, December 2000 | Go to article overview
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Embroidered Emotions


Sartorius, Tara Cady, Arts & Activities


Anger. It can be instantly explosive or it can percolate below the surface for a long, long time. When expressed, it can hurt feelings and it can even kill. The ripple from an act of anger spreads to othersand affects them in curious ways. Anger can eat away at one's heart and soul. The effects of anger might be healed over time, but there might always be a scar.

The work to your left is titled Aftermath. What is an aftermath? It is an effect, an outcome, a result or a consequence. In the case of this work, artist Michael Olszewski (pronounced ol-SHEF-ski) has stated that this is the aftermath of intense anger. He uses deep, saturated reds that both complement and clash. His stitches appear to close a wound, but they also define it, calling attention to the deep gash in the center of the image.

A large red cross, the symbol of first aid, marks the center of the square. In a circular pattern around and over and through the cross are appliqued arcs and embroidered stitch marks that carry the eye round and round in an almost dizzying motion.

Olszewski says that his art begins with a feeling, an emotion, a realization, a personal problem or an event in progress. His objects begin with a piece of fabric, most commonly silk, but sometimes linen or wool. The silk might be new or antique, possibly from Japan or Italy. It might begin as a plain, uncolored piece of fabric, or it might be a fragment from an already-dyed antique Japanese kimono. Usually, however, Olszewski dyes the silk, cuts it, alters it with stitching and might even dye it again and again, repeating his processes and building his constructions in layers.

By choosing to work with fabric, Olszewski breaks with tradition in two ways: in gender role and in artistic medium. In some cultures, as in parts of Africa and Mexico, men are entrusted with weaving the finest fabrics, but in the United States, women are usually responsible for making cloth. Olszewski, a white American man, makes cloth. It is not unheard of--just unusual.

More unusual, however, is the practice of using fabric to create Expressionist works of art. Expressionism, considered innovative in the early 1900s, evolved to become known as art that relies upon emotion and inner necessity as its only true impetus. Expressionist works were at first distorted images, then later became purely nonobjective works, usually in the form of paintings on paper or canvas. Olszewski pushes the edges of Expressionism (which began as a deliberate rebellion against the traditional) by creating emotion-laden objects from one of the most traditional materials available, fabric.

Whereas Expressionist painters might build up color and gestural marks on a large surface to convey their emotions, Olszewski says that his pieces are embedded through and through with feeling. He is not creating a picture of an emotion, he is creating a fully embodied emotional object. His fabric pieces are jewel-like in scale and intensity, purposely sized to relate to the human chest or torso.

Olszewski's emotions do not simply sit on the surface, they permeate each entire piece. He stitches by hand through layer after layer, he dyes the fabric all the way through, cuts it and reconstructs it--all the while contemplating the often difficult issues (such as death, uncertainty, loneliness or aging) he has had to address in his own life.

The introspective nature of his work is compelling. By any objective measure, Olszewski could be considered a privileged and successful artist. He is well-schooled, with a B.F.A in graphic design from the Maryland Institute, and an M.F.A. in fiber from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He has also received numerous awards, including a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship and three fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Currently, Olszewski is a professor of textile design at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.

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