Sheila Pepe’s Italian-American mother taught her to crochet when she was 7, and for about 30 years – as she honed her visual art skills – that was her secret.
“There was a 30-year gap because you wouldn’t have caught me dead crocheting,” says the New York artist/educator in an Institute of Contemporary Art-Boston video, “and then I began to do it at a time when I was being called a conceptual artist, which made sense.”
With her degrees from the Massachusetts College of Fine Arts and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Pepe was absorbed, creating conceptual installations with electricity, light and shadow. “So when I began to crochet, I said, ‘I am crocheting. Now, is that conceptual art?’” she says with a chuckle. “And I think the answer was silently, ‘No.’”
Nevertheless, Pepe has taken the feminist legacy of her mother and grandmother and woven together dozens of solo, duo and group exhibitions from New York to Florida and abroad, using what she calls “improvisational crochet” technique to mesh shoelaces, yarn, nets, nautical tow line, rubber bands – anything that can be crocheted, knitted or sewn.
Pepe will share her artistic vision – conceptual and crocheted, personal and monumental – in an artist talk on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Ball Hall auditorium, room 127. A reception from 5-7 p.m. precedes the talk and occurs simultaneously with a gallery talk by Michael Fischerkeller, whose work is currently on exhibit in Slocumb Galleries.
“Sheila’s art connects perfectly with our string theme this season,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “She is a well-established visual artist coming here from New York to talk with us about her unique works in improvisational crochet and to also work with students while she is on campus.”
The improvisation happens as Pepe crafts a vision, carefully selects materials from her favorite small businesses and begins crocheting, but then lets the spaces – ceilings, balconies, staircases – mold the works in place. One installation, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, actually moved as the gallery’s elevator rose and fell.
And crochet is the perfect medium for Pepe’s creations. She considers them “drawn” with the shoelaces, rope or string.
“Crocheting is just a perfect enterprise because it’s one tool in variable directions,” Pepe said in preparing for her “Red Hook” installation at Smith College in 2008. “You can go line. You can go volume. You can just drive it around in any which way and I like that mutability.”
In addition to her intricate ephemeral works, Pepe is “an educator who likes to trespass the boundaries of fixed disciplines in art and design,” and at the same time, pass on the legacy of the traditional home crafts she learned, “even though (she) broke with tradition in a very serious way – by engaging in a life of the mind.”
“Mostly I want to pass on a love of ideas and history and understanding that we are making our relationships, and thus history, every day,” says Pepe, who has taught since 1995 and is presently instructing at Yale, Columbia, the State University of New York-Purchase and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “Making up the kind of ‘play-spaces’ we call ‘installation’ is a metaphoric world, an experimental world, but it must be executed on the ground with all of the same common sense that must apply to any other more practical ‘building’ project.
“Facts and fantasy apply to all equally, and facts of materials and the physics of space still apply to all humans. We come from different cultures and this makes those things richer through difference – but it can’t change the ground we share.”
Each installation, or building project, is a learning experience. “I love them all,” she says. “I learn so much with each work – and if I’m not learning, I’m not happy.”
Also intertwined into her visual art, DeAngelis says, is Pepe’s work in the LGBTQ community and with social justice issues. “Sheila has such a strong reputation in not only the art world,” says DeAngelis, “but other significant areas of our world.”
“My activism is lending love, learning and imagination together in ways that aim to raise some awareness – some empathy – and now, more recently, understanding, between desire and reality. You could call it a bit more of the ‘reality check’ pragmatism I was raised with.”
The Feb. 9 artist talk will tie together Pepe’s cultural history and the way she looks at the world through that lens, she says, as well as how she thinks about the things she creates.
She hopes that her talk will inspire in ETSU’s campus and the community “Curiosity! The best reason for even going to college at all!”
For more information on Pepe, visit www.sheilapepe.com.
For more information on the artist talk or the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.