Crocheted penises punctuate Mattress Factory clash with fiber artist Olek after revoking residency | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Crocheted penises punctuate Mattress Factory clash with fiber artist Olek after revoking residency

click to enlarge Fiber artist Olek poses their crocheted penises during a performance stunt at the Mattress Factory, Feb. 12 - PHOTO: OLEK
Photo: Olek
Fiber artist Olek poses their crocheted penises during a performance stunt at the Mattress Factory, Feb. 12
The text came in at 4:38 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 12, but I didn’t see it until 5:20 p.m. “I’m doing a ‘dickalicious’ performance tonight 5:30 in the mattress factory. Keep the secret. Let me know if you can come.” It was from Olek, the renowned fiber artist I had spoken with earlier that day about the recent loss of their residency at the Mattress Factory, due to an incident where they were cited for injuring a guest at a private museum event.

This was quickly followed by a photo of them posed with a colorful array of crocheted penises and two more texts — “Museum is calling police” and “In police car.” As of this afternoon, a text containing a strange image read that they had been released.

Though the stunt was brief, with Olek setting up their penis display in the museum’s vestibule and then being escorted out by Pittsburgh police officers by around 6 p.m., it’s one Mattress Factory interim executive director Hayley Haldeman won’t soon forget. Haldeman claims Olek refused to leave and continually yelled things at guests like, “Do you want to buy a dick?” and “Do you want to get slapped with a dick?”

“At one point, an older African-American man walked into the museum and Olek started yelling at him, ‘Do you want to buy a dick? I’ll give it to you half-priced because you’re Black,’” says Haldeman. “He looked horrified.”

The performance took place during what Mattress Factory marketing and communications director Mandy Wilson says was an especially busy night, with guests arriving for two events — a sold-out show with current exhibiting artist Nathan Hall and February Member Days, which grants free admission to members of any of the city’s museums.

In addition to losing their residency, Olek was prohibited from entering the museum, meaning the performance technically constituted trespassing.

Haldeman praised how well the museum staff and police handled the situation, which ended with Olek being arrested and led away without incident.

“Imagine the Pittsburgh police delicately packing up all of the crocheted neon penises,” laughs Haldeman. “They were so respectful about it. … They were putting them in the envelope while Olek’s yelling at them, ‘I’m gonna hit you with a dick.’”

click to enlarge Screenshot of texts between Olek and Amanda Waltz
Screenshot of texts between Olek and Amanda Waltz
Though absurd, the situation with Olek adds to almost two years of turmoil at the Mattress Factory. In 2018, the museum came under fire for mishandling multiple claims that a male staff member had been preying on female employees, with allegations ranging from sexual harassment to rape, as originally reported by Pittsburgh's NPR news station WESA. What followed was a National Labor Relations Board investigation that led to the ousting of museum co-founder and then-executive director Michael Olijnyk, and a leadership transition that included the temporary hiring of former Westmoreland Museum of American Art director Judith O’Toole before Haldeman was brought on.

But, as Haldeman and Wilson attest, many issues with Olek were directly related to how they allegedly spoke to employees about the scandal.

Olek was chosen by a panel from over 360 applicants. The residency would allow them to work on a virtual reality crocheting project set to debut at the museum’s May Factory Installed exhibition. The residency provides artists with a $2,500 honorarium, $25 a day per diem, and free lodging. The museum also covers materials and labor costs, as well as providing support with the exhibition.

Over the course of their residency — which went for less than three weeks before it was revoked — Haldeman says Olek spoke openly about their feelings regarding the #MeToo movement, which, over the past few years, has seen many high-profile cases where women have made sexual assault or harassment allegations against powerful men, most notably Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

In a PDF sent to Pittsburgh City Paper from the Mattress Factory, an official letter dated Feb. 5 says Olek made “inappropriate and demanding comments to Mattress Factory employees,” including beliefs that “American women ‘lie so much’ about sexual assault, make rape claims ‘to use for their own benefit,’ and that it ‘does not count’ as rape if a victim does not press criminal charges.

“It was extremely distressing, as you can imagine, to hear that American women only make rape claims to get attention,” says Haldeman, adding that Olek also commented that American men “can’t be expected to behave in the workplace because American women only joined the workplace a few decades ago.”

This was in addition to insults Olek allegedly directed at two female employees and Haldeman, including, as the letter confirms, derogatory name-calling over texts and in person, such as “you bitch,” “you are the devil,” and “you fucking idiot.”

Haldeman says Olek was given multiple warnings about their behavior, but that the alleged physical assault, which happened on Feb. 1 during a private event hosted by Imbibe Pittsburgh, was the final straw. As Haldeman explains, Olek was invited to the event, where they proceeded to do a performance with their virtual reality headset. Per the letter and details provided by Haldeman, police officers doing security at the event and officers who were called by guests responded to a call that Olek had head-butted a male guest, who was bleeding profusely from either his nose or lip (the guest was never identified). Olek was then given a $40 citation for "harassment by physical contact, or attempts of threats."

Olek was then told by Haldeman, with support from the Mattress Factory board of directors, that they had lost their residency and had to vacate the premises. The letter also says that Olek was banned from entering the Mattress Factory "for the safety and well-being" of staff and visitors.

Olek, a respected, non-binary fiber artist from Poland, is no stranger to controversy, as their decades-long career shows. Their high-profile work includes doing “yarn bombing,” a type of graffiti that involves knitting landmarks and public art in urban settings. In 2010, Olek received a lot of attention for knitting the Wall Street bull statue in New York City.

But they have also been the subject of other assault allegations. According to an article from Hyperallergic, Olek was in London in 2011 to donate their art to a charity show, where they were then arrested and detained after becoming “involved in an incident with a drunk and aggressive male who behaved reprehensibly.” As a result, Olek launched a campaign asking for funds to help cover their legal fees.

In an interview over the phone, Olek disputes Mattress Factory's version of the Imbibe Pittsburgh event, saying that the injury was unintentional and that the assault victim was actually drunk and had grabbed them. Because their vision was obscured by the VR goggles, they turned and hit the man in the face.

“From behind, a man grabbed me, pushes me, and calls me 'psycho bitch,'” they say, “and I don’t know what happened. I don’t see anything. I stood up and it was so quick.”

They say they apologized to the man and that “he was so drunk, he started saying, ‘I love you,’ and was blowing kisses in my face.”

As a result, they view the action taken against them as harsh and unfair.

“I had to leave immediately, and they wanted nothing to do with me, and I said, ‘I’m really embarrassed, how could you do this to an artist in the middle of their work? Who does this?’” says Olek.

However, Olek doesn’t deny the allegations of using abusive language against employees, implying that they lashed out because they felt mistreated and because they were becoming increasingly frustrated with what they felt was an inexperienced, young staff at the Mattress Factory. They specifically called out Haldeman, a former lawyer who stepped down from her career to take on her current role at the museum in January 2019.

“She never worked with an artist,” says Olek, claiming that, from the beginning, Haldeman failed to present them with the proper equipment and materials needed to complete their project. “I didn’t want to work with her because she was useless. She was making my work more difficult every day.”

They admit to, and regret, calling Haldeman “a bitch,” but felt they were justified given the circumstances. This was after, they claim, they had to pay for their own ticket to fly from Poland to Pittsburgh for the residency and were given unreasonable demands to do extra work, like teaching crocheting classes at the museum.

“Put yourself in my situation,” says Olek, who has participated in several previous arts residencies. “I’m coming here, I want to work, and I’m having problems with everything.”

However, while there are conflicting details on the Imbibe Pittsburgh incident, Olek's views on sexual assault claims and the #MeToo movement were similar to what was detailed in the letter. Over the course of the interview, they say, among other things, that “cancel culture in America is a horrible thing that took over people's rational thinking,” and repeatedly insisted that Olijnyk should be reinstated.

“You can’t blindly go and protect women who are lying because they won’t take seriously the people who are saying the truth,” says Olek, adding that women are now “accusing men of rape charges that didn’t happen and destroying men’s lives” and that the Mattress Factory employees who accused the staff member of rape were only after financial compensation from the museum.

While Haldeman agrees that there was a misunderstanding with the plane ticket situation, she argues that they paid for Olek’s train ticket from their U.S. residence in New York City. She says that the museum was still in the process of obtaining equipment for Olek because, when they accepted the residency in December 2019, they had yet to decide if they were going to do a VR project or work in their traditional yarn-based medium. She adds that within days of Olek’s arrival on Jan. 15, the museum had “either purchased or secured the donation of every piece of new equipment that Olek requested.”

Haldeman speculates that Olek’s frustration with employees could be tied to the multiple, non-work related requests they made to an employee, with the list including Epson salts, a yoga mat, a guitar, Russian language lessons, an immersion blender, fountain pen cartridges, rechargeable batteries, creation of new museum events, organic food, and an “old-fashioned” alarm clock.

“By the second week, Olek’s frustration seemed to be related to the speed the employee acquired these items,” says Haldeman.

Overall, Haldeman says she and the museum felt that Olek leaving was in the best interest of the staff and visitors. She also believes that, in the wake of the 2018 scandal, their quick action shows that the museum will no longer “tolerate abuse of its staff, guests, or artists, and that’s regardless of someone’s gender expression or their stature in the arts community.”

While Haldeman says they’re still unsure of how to proceed with Factory Installed in Olek’s absence, the museum is currently focusing on the exhibit’s two other artists, Shikeith and Jennifer Angus.

Despite feeling unfairly treated, Olek has remained in Pittsburgh in hopes that Mattress Factory leadership will change its mind and take them back, something that seems unlikely after the “dickalicious” event.

“We all deserve second chances in life,” says Olek. “Because I’m willing to give Mattress Factory a second chance, and Mattress Factory should give me a second chance. Is that so much to ask?”

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