In his eloquent fabric collages, Michael Olszewski communicates “intimate feelings prompted by people and circumstances.” Using line, color, texture, and symbolic form, he expresses personal responses to such sorrowful human experiences as separation, aging, and death — and his own long struggles with self-identity. As a result, his art is solemn and emotionally serious. Yet, the somberness of meanings notwithstanding, his pleated and stitched pieces made from resist-dyed silks and other fabrics materially impart an extraordinary delicacy and gentleness. Modest in size, their intimate scale and softly blended, grayed colors help convey the elegaic nature of their subjects — the death of his father, the loss of friends to AIDS.
Olszweski’s fabric constructions combine traditional batik and Japanese shibori resist-dyeing techniques with hand stitching and embroidery. The unobtrusive needlework creates linear and abstract markings on soft silk surfaces reminiscent of drawing and handwriting. The variable character of the stitching helps to establish the emotional tenor of works: small stitches suggest loneliness and desperation, while larger, more spacious ones impart a happier mood.
By employing pieced and appliquéd textiles — both old and new — the artist firmly evokes the history of quilt-making and textiles that record the lives of individuals and peoples. But the influences on his art are more diverse than those within the history of textiles. They include the nonobjective paintings of the Russian constructivists, the rich, colorful abstractions of Sonia Delaunay, Marsden Hartley, and Mark Rothko, and the abstract expressionist painters’ direct use of color, form, and texture.
Speaking to Hear (1989) [1993.54.12a‑b] is a separately framed diptych. The artist employs this particular format to tell two sides of a story, to convey the idea of different viewpoints in a narrative. In this instance, the subject is about interpersonal communication — about the difficulty, sometimes, of speaking those words that another person needs so much to hear. The compositions are similar: a wider band is placed over a panel of narrower strips, and set against a grayed backdrop of pleated, resist-dyed silk. To convey the duality of viewpoints, the two geometric images are reversed.
Seen on the left, the vertical band represents the sternum, the center of a ribcage. The strips, like equal signs, anchor the image, and the resulting cruciform embodies symbolically the center of a person — in this case the artist. Although the composition is turned on its side, the right hand work is similarly structured, and the various additional components balance those that appear in the opposite work. Initially, the viewer perceives only the strong, central cruciform shape, but then, as he examines the works in greater detail, extra pieced elements and stitchery on the pleated backgrounds are noted.
The silk pleating common to Speaking to Hear and other fabric constructions by Olszewski was inaugurated in 1979. At the time, the artist was writing a letter on a legal-sized pad of lined paper and having difficulty conveying his thoughts. In order to pursue the notion of personal communication further in his fabric works, Olszewski introduced pleats to suggest lined paper, and used stitching as writing.
In Speaking to Hear, black stitches and dense embroidery sections appear and disappear against the variegated tones of the gray silk like whispered words, and the colors of the pieced fabrics communicate the mournful mood of the intended conversation. The varied reds of the bands and stripes infuse a poignancy and urgency into the need for speaking and hearing, while the quiet grays, with their pulsating tonal gradations, inject a note of sadness.
Jeremy Adamson KPMG Peat Marwick Collection of American Craft: A Gift to the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994)