Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Michael Olszewski, the most recent artist to be exhibited at the List Gallery, opened his collection of recent works yesterday at the List Gallery. A William J. Cooper event, Olszewski gave a brief lecture prior to the List reception discussing his influences and education as an artist.
A native of Baltimore, to which Olszewski credits his “warped sensibilities,” Michael Olszewski began painting when he was “eight or nine years old,” and pointed to several influences within his family on his work. Olszewski credited his parents’ depression-era mentalities of “save, reuse …and respect for others” as particularly formative. Olszewski, who identifies himself as gay, also noted the difficulties of coming to terms with his sexual orientation as formative.
Olszewski’s education reflects a journey of gradual recognitions. A graphic design and illustration major, Olszewski worked for a time with Hallmark an experience for which he asserts “I was very grateful but it wasn’t for me.” From illustration, Olszewski moved to design and studied weaving and surface design at the Kansas City Art Institute and later studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Over the course of his education, Olszewski became increasingly aware of ways to “talk about self” through art. Using fiber, a medium which “in the 70s meant you could do anything with any material,” Olszewski says, he learned to “access emotions.”
This marked the beginning of the mission which Olszewski’s work follows through the present day. As many of the pieces he shared during the lecture and presents in the exhibit suggest, Olszewski deeply invests his work in terms of scale, color, and pattern with emotional significance.
Olszewski’s work, with fabric pleated to resemble pages and watercolors that recall Whistler’s Nocturnes, is at once fluid and designed. Even in watercolors, which Olszewski calls his “snapshot” medium, there is no room for ‘accident.’ His pieces begin with a small sketch planning out the details in full of even the smallest watercolor and a journal entry through which he works out the emotional content essential to the piece.
Working one at a time, Olszewski continues the piece until he feels satisfied that the work embodies the emotion to which it is devoted. He acknowledged in the Q&A that the process allows him to work through his emotions. Many of the pieces in the List reflect his striving towards “balance, calm, contentment” while he also acknowledged the influence of his mother’s passing in 2008 on eleven of the pieces present from that year and in her introduction, Andrea Packard alluded to the importance of memory in Olszewski’s art as a consequence of his mother’s twenty-four years struggle with Alzheimer’s.
Olszewski works with a range of materials and techniques in his textile work. “The Descent” a piece from 2008 in the List exhibit incorporates nylon, silk, paper and metal through crochet, stitching and appliquÃ©. As with several of the pieces described in his lecture, the piece layers his materials and presents ribbons of fabric that appear to tangle in a bloom-like maze without a visible “anchor” weaving it into the backing.
Olszewski’s influences, which he hinted at through a series of photographs from Peru to Krakow, lie in quilt and textile work as well as more unexpected sources of pattern such as heating grates and garage doors. Among these Olszewski’s included the Zen sculpture gardens in Kyoto, designed to be so large that you cannot see the entire garden at the same time and must therefore involve memory in perceiving the garden as a whole. Though the scale of his own work is generally quite the opposite, including pieces no more than four square inches, he has achieved a similar effect through the remarkable and poetic nuances of detail in his pieces. It is virtually impossible to take in all of these details at any given moment.
The exhibit also includes a number of Olszewski’s watercolors. Olszewski has made particular use of the medium in landscape painting while working in Ireland. A Ballinglen fellow, Olszewski shared how the landscape of County Mayo effected him as well as his discovery on the lichen-covered rock of the same “vocabulary” of repetition that had so intrigued him in studying textiles. A suggestion of this vocabulary can be seen in his “Cairn #3” and “Cairn #5” watercolor set.
Michael Olsewski’s intensely personal work in textile and watercolor, is intimate and intricate in its execution. His exhibit will remain in the List through February 25.