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


How much feeling is in a line?

Jenny Casey is an artist who creates mixed media, sculpture-like paintings that document her emotions and experiences she has interacting with the city, with the people and in nature. Casey works in a meditative way stemming from her own thoughts evolving from one thought to the next, and incorporates collage elements into all of her paintings. She recently debuted her newest series, "Emergence" on Saturday, May 9th at St. Luke's Gardens in Manhattan's West Village.

"That was a moment"

"That was a moment"

A: Jenny, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to this series of work, “Emergence”?

J: The “Emergence” series is a process of refinement. It started to form when I started seeing small pieces of white space (or blank canvas) within a painting and something within me and on the canvas started to change.

“Emergence” challenged me to be more refined which was hard. It was different than my other paintings. In my old paintings when something wasn't working out I would paint through my emotions, cover it up. This process of refinement was a new challenge for me and now I love it. At first I found it so difficult to be refined but it became a purposeful balance of refinement and restraint.

About 3 years ago is when I started experimenting with mixed media. It was really a time when I felt I wanted to paint for myself again as more of a meditative journey and start to show my work to the world. Around that time,  I decided to take a drawing class with one of The Art Studio NY instructors, Linda Connelly. I felt comfortable enough with her to share what I was going through both on and off the canvas.  I told her I had worked my way up into more senior, management roles in the graphic design industry, but started to feel like I was loosing my creativity. She said:

“You should start sketching everyday and don't feel bad about anything you draw. You will get better as you practice.It helps to keep your creativity alive and flowing.”

I started sketching everyday. I started doing series of 30 days of sketching, 60 days of sketching, 90 days of sketching to get my thoughts out. Drawing was never a daily thing for me, but it soon became my daily meditation. As I kept sketching and sharing my drawings with the world on social media, things just started to evolve.

Sketches from Jenny's 30 days of sketching journey

Sketches from Jenny's 30 days of sketching journey

My mixed-media painting class instructor at the Art Studio NY, Edward Holland, and the Art Studio NY owner Rebecca Schweiger, saw the direction I was going in and encouraged me to add some drawing into my paintings. I started to experiment with markers and pencil, with leaving pieces of canvas exposed.

A: What made you decide that you wanted to start showing your work and posting your drawings online?

J: At first, I was scared to show my artwork. I cared what people would think, I had doubts, I am a perfectionist. I felt so nervous to post my art online. Then I just said screw it I am going to go for it! People started reaching out to me saying, “you really inspire me,” it helped shape me into who I am. It really started this process of evolving into my authentic self.

A: What inspires you?

J: I like bright colors and have always been inspired by hidden discoveries and beauty in my environment. In my most recent painting series, “Emergence,” I would close my eyes and try out just shaking my hand, and do a brush or pen stroke. It was very therapeutic like punching a punching bag while at the same time creating something interesting. Being okay with doing a small area of a painting and saying ”i am content with that” was how the series ended up evolving. It became more of this minimalistic, experimental approach to painting. To say, “okay, I am okay with this stroke, I really like this” was difficult because being content with just a couple "imperfect" strokes was always a challenge for me.

I've always been inspired by Andy Warhol. That's where my love of sculpture, graphic design and pop art came from. But as I was making this minimalistic transition, I became incredibly inspired by the work of the artists, Joan Mitchell and Cy Twombly. Then it all just came to a point where it exploded. I started to think...

“how much feeling is in a line?”

A: How did this show differ from your others?

J: I've been in a variety of gallery shows which were amazing experiences but there is something so interesting about showing my art outside in nature, specifically at St. Luke's Gardens. I discovered the garden about a year ago and knew it would be a wonderful place to exhibit art. 

"Emergence" exhibit at St. Luke's Gardens in Manhattan's West Village

"Emergence" exhibit at St. Luke's Gardens in Manhattan's West Village

At this show it was interesting to observe what pieces people connected with the most. People were most drawn to “On The Heels of Change” which was neat as it also happened to be the painting featured on the invitation and event poster. 

"on the heels of change"  photo taken at jenny's solo exhibit, "emergence", in the gardens at St. Luke in NYC

"on the heels of change" photo taken at jenny's solo exhibit, "emergence", in the gardens at St. Luke in NYC

I also loved watching people interact with my art. Some people were just walking by and it became this impromptu experience, like a pop-up gallery for them. Watching this interaction in the garden, a hidden oasis in the middle of the busy city, made it even more special. It was so fun to meet new people and share an environment together; the art was an added bonus. 

For more information on Jenny Casey's artwork contact or visit her website at