Subtle Shifts in Behavior and Identity

Iviva Olenick is a Brooklyn-based artist and poet whose work intersects text, textiles, and technology. Iviva creates narrative and sculptural embroidery inspired by her surroundings, subway sightings, and other artists. Olenick's work explores how we adjust and adapt to external change in urban environments and our awareness of these subtle shifts in behavior and identity. 


A: What exactly does narrative sculpture mean?

I: There is text embroidered directly on my sculptures. I audio record interviews with friends and acquaintances, then extract the most salient remarks to embroider. If I am particularly taken with a story, I make a stop motion animation of each letter as I embroider it. I add edited audio from the interview. 

A: When did your weaving and embroidery progress into sculpture?

I: I started experimenting with sculpture in summer 2013. After a 7-year textile design job ended, I longed to stay connected to design without taking on another corporate job. I started cutting fabric into shapes and ironing it onto thick interfacing. Interlacing the shapes by embroidering them together into neckwear (scarves and necklaces), I noticed I could stand my pieces up on a table. I realized I could use a combination of interfacing and fabric to make figures. I tried this out, making a few pieces which now look pretty preliminary. Still summer 2013, I was preparing for a 2013 winter show at Muriel Guepin Gallery. I showed her my preliminary dolls, and she liked them and wanted to exhibit them. 

Since then, my technique has gotten more sophisticated, and I've shifted the narrative to how we adjust to constant change and socioeconomic pressure while holding onto a core sense of identity in NYC. Everything in New York is compressed, which makes adjusting very hard. Time is sped up and there is a sense of urgency. While I literally share narrative through embroidered texts, I exploit body language, hairstyles and posturing to convey characteristic behaviors. My sculptures look like someone you know, even if you don't know their specific stories. My goal is to tell these stories, making us more visible to each other.   

Even though we see and walk past hundreds if not thousands of New Yorkers every week, we largely remain invisible to each other. Many upper middle class New Yorkers have no idea what it's like to live in a neighborhood where violence is commonplace, it's not safe for kids to walk home by themselves from school and parents are strapped working multiple jobs. While my sculptures won't force face to face interactions across socioeconomic lines, I hope to use them as a vehicle for empathy.

A: Do you always base your characters on people you know personally? Do you just look at people and think, I am going to turn them into a sculpture?

I: Many of my sculptures are based on friends and acquaintances, people I meet at art openings, bars and parties whom I find interesting. Occasionally, I observe strangers on the train or subway who seem particularly fascinating. I borrow from what I remember of their clothing and body language, sometimes combining qualities from two different people to create a new story. 

A: What about the people you draw inspiration from that you just pass by on the street or see in the subway? How do you choose the narrative for those subjects? 

I: So far, there are 4 sculptures from observation, all women. of the 4, 3 have text. One does not. The one without text defies description. I saw her on the subway, I think around Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn. She was potentially homeless; potentially just eccentric. It was hard to really tell what was going on with her. 

To some extent, I think we all make up stories about people we encounter once and those we see repeatedly. I couldn't quite infer this woman's story. Her mannerisms (hair twirling, repetitive hand movements) had a bit of the mania I associate with outward expression of mental illness. Her outfit didn't quite make sense, yet was bold and striking, and in some contexts would have been considered creative, bohemian and hip. She created questions for me about perception (our assumptions based on our own experiences of race, class, gender and other identifying categories). I wanted to capture what I found fascinating about her and felt it completely inappropriate to impose a narrative on her. The colors I used for her clothes are not entirely accurate. Instead of the blue in my doll, her top and skirt had a dark forest green. So I made adjustments when I made the sculpture. I retained her original sense of mixed patterns. She became a homage without literally representing the person I originally observed.


The woman described above reminds me of a homeless man I've seen in Chelsea/the 34th Street areas of Manhattan. He wears a coat made from rolled and twisted pieces of newspaper. It's ingenious and beautiful. The first time I saw him, I fantasized about bringing him to my then fashion job at a menswear company, knowing my boss would have been more than annoyed. I dreamed about having a design studio where I could hire him, teach him textile techniques (which he might already know) and have him apply the twisted newspaper look to other materials and forms. As this man is homeless and potentially ill, when I first saw him, I didn't engage him much, just gave him some money and tried not to stare too hard at his handiwork. I wonder(ed) what we lose culturally when we lose people like him from mainstream contexts. His newspaper creation was just so captivating and I still wonder about what "could be" for him. 

A: Could you expand more on the stop motion animation videos? At what point did you start to incorporate this into your process?

I: I've been making these very low-tech stop motion videos for about 9 months. I started experimenting with the medium while I was an artist in residence at IMC Lab & Gallery in Chelsea, which pairs artists with technologists to create new cross-disciplinary work. The space has incredible technical facilities, including projectors, and James Tunick, who co-runs the residency with his wife, Carrie, is a computer programmer capable of activating sound and video in new ways by programming the space. While working on my hand crafted sculptures for Native/Immigrant City, I decided to enliven some of the content from interviews by editing the audio recordings and adding excerpts to stitch by stitch or letter by letter stop motion animations of the same text appearing on fabric. 

A: Would you say that the videos are as important as the actual sculptures themselves in the work?

I: The videos still feel very raw to me and exploratory and preliminary. It is a challenge for me to work across media, incorporating digital tools to stay relevant and up to date even though my mission is to preserve traditional tactile arts like weaving, embroidery and soft sculpture.The videos distill more complex narratives into visual snapshots, and are potentially easier to absorb than reading the texts on the sculptures, which are both concealed and revealed in how they wrap around the body. 

A: What type of work were you making before you started incorporating embroidery into your art?

I: I spent a lot of my 20s writing poetry, which I think held some promise and needed some editing and emotional maturity. Some poetry finds its way into my flat embroideries (embroidered tweets). See@EmbroideryPoems on my web site, which includes my own and others' tweet length poems translated into stitch, a 2013 Brooklyn Arts Council sponsored project.

A: Where can people see some of your work in person? I am also interested to hear more about the Artists Who Write Salons you have curated, could you talk about that a bit?

I: Muriel Guepin Gallery represents my work in NYC. I've been showing with her since 2009, and she maintains an inventory. Recently, I started partnering with Brooklyn Workshop Gallery, a lovely community-oriented space run by artist, Martine Bisagni in the Carroll Gardens/Gowanus border. My sculptures were in the window there for a month during Embroidery Studio Thursday sessions, which we will resume in July. For now, the sculptures are in my studio for some promising studio visits.

In a series of events separate from yet related to my artwork, Jenny Douglas and I of the Brooklyn Cottage have co-curated two Artists Who Write Salons on consecutive Wednesdays in June. The first one took place on 6/10 and featured Yazmany Arboleda, a talented dancer, choreographer, designer, public interaction artist and memoirist; Kent Shell, a painter with a startling honest writing voice in essays and short stories; and Seldon Yuan, an artist who emphasizes and subverts linguistic and graphic design conventions, making poems visible through installations, sculptures, artist books and related objects. He is currently working on a novel. 


The next Artists Who Write Salon is THIS Wednesday, 6/17 from 7-9pm again at The Brooklyn Cottage, featuring Swati Khurana, Montana Ray and Iviva Olenick.


You can check out more of Iviva's work on her website www.ivivaolenick.com