The Mad Hatter: Pat Oleszko in the StudioSeptember 24, 2014
Lit by the gorgeous stained glass windows of Cottekill’s CHRCH Project Space, artist-in-residence Pat Oleszko alternates between a sewing machine and a hot glue gun, both vital tools of her trade. Across CHRCH’s wood floors, vibrant and strange creatures stretch in various stages of becoming, waiting to be transformed with found materials that Pat has pillaged from local thrift stores and the dusty cobwebs of WSW’s own storage. She dons a gray foam hat, slicing strips of cardboard to add to another one of her flamboyant constructions. Ever a performer, she pauses occasionally to pose with her creations for the camera.
“Basically, I am a sculptor and the sculptures live in society,” Pat says. “I like the three-dimensional aspect of the body in the world. Creating a language for it, creating a situation for it, creating a meaning for it, is all a part of it.”
Pat Oleszko is a mixed media performance artist whose site-specific works have been critically addressing social, political, environmental, and geographical issues since the 1960s. She sculpts language and fabric into elaborate productions of costumed characters framed by an exaggerated and often absurd humor. Pat comes to Women’s Studio Workshop the first Rosendale Cross Cultural Public Arts Grant recipient. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, this new initiative aims to bring together artists and their communities to build their local identity and economy.
Six weeks into the two-month residency, Pat has created a collection of fancy headwear for WSW’s 40th Anniversary Gala, raced an entry in the Kingston Artist’s Soap Box Derby, and is in the process of creating a slew of Pat-style scarecrows for The Would/Lands, an installation along the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. Her project presents a unique opportunity to collaborate with the community and cultivate wonder and discovery in a public space. Meanwhile, she continues to mine various local papers and tourist magazines for upcoming opportunities to interject herself into the community. Needless to say, she works best when busy.
On one end of her CHRCH studio sits BRIDES HEADS REVISITED: JEST MERRIED, an eleven-person wedding party sporting vibrant bridesmaids dresses and Pat’s entry for the derby. Inspired by the religious nature of her studio, a 116-year-old former Dutch Reformed church, the work plays with traditional family structures and the changing politics of marriage.
“As a godless female, it seems totally right to be in a church, given that I’ve never been able to stay happily in any institution,” Pat says with a laugh.
The human-sized figures—Dee Flowered Girl, 7 Maids Not Milking, and two Gay Pride Brides—form a linear procession, which Pat wears on her shoulders and animates when she walks. The fabulous wedding party went “down-hell” at the derby on August 24, along with Pat’s assistant Rachel Nolte in character as Auntie Maim pushing Able-bodied Semen Justin Case. (Pat uses words as another found material to craft clever linguistic costumes for her creations. “Words are like ready-made clothes,” she says. “You alter them to fit your purpose.”)
Originally from Detroit, Pat began by studying sculpture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the 1960s, when she first used her body as a way to carry her hyperbolic, satirical sculptures.
“In order to escape the humiliation by my fellow (male) compadres, who were laughing at my pieces as they tumbled to the ground, I was working at home and started sewing things and searching for armature that could hold my work,” she says. “I realized that I was six feet tall—I could hang it on myself. Bingo, Eureka! I became a pedestrian sculpture.”
In the midst of the burgeoning Ann Arbor arts scene, Pat made films, crafted short skits for live audiences, and even entered herself as a float in the homecoming parade one year. After volunteering for the Amateur Striptease Contest in Toledo, she also began stripping as Pat the Hippie Strippie and worked with Rose la Rose, a key figure in the history of burlesque performance.
“I was exploring what the highly-costumed, enhanced individual could be, as part of my life,” she says. And performing the role of the Fool allowed her special permission to confront controversial social, political, and environmental topics. “I’m trying to right wrongs through humor,” she continues. “You have to have a person that is the ‘Other’ who is allowed to speak the truth—and get away with it.”
As her work continues to evolve, Pat is more interested in conjuring site-specific works for a “nontraditional stage” that might surreptitiously collaborate with passersby as they happen into the work. During her time in Rosendale, Pat has been responding to the rich landscape of mountains, mines, caves, and trails, which are markers for the village’s history as a cement town. She’s chosen the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, a local landmark, as the site where her work will culminate. Embracing the playful oddity and absurdity of her creations, she beckons a strange presence into these woods.
Her public art installation, The Would/Lands, will present at least thirteen human-sized figures installed along the Rail Trail near WSW. Erected on the hills, implanted on the side of the mountain, and wrapped around trees, these “color-fool” creations will be delightful and strange discoveries for unknowing passersby. Over the next two months, their figures will continue to change with the landscape.
“This is no ordinary autumnal turning of the colors,” Pat writes of her upcoming installation and performance. “Trees are now bedecked with a presence formally unnatural to remain as a diversion until early winter. Things get curiouser and curiouser.”
On October 5th at 4pm, join Pat Oleszko for The Would/Lands: Walk on the Wild Side, an opening procession of dressed characters, staged melodramas, musical accompaniment, and public participants to welcome her costumed creations. It’s not a day to be missed!
Pat Oleszko’s multimedia repertoire ranges from giant inflatables to plays and films to street and site-specific performances. She has created works for the Museum of Modern Art, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been commissioned by magazines such as Esquire, Ms, and New York Magazine. For her diverse efforts, she has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, the Rome Prize fellowship, the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin residency, and the occasional evening in jail. View more of Pat’s work at patoleszko.com, and more photos of her residency on Flickr.