Q&A With Penny Sisto

"Flamingos" by Penny Sisto

"Flamingos" by Penny Sisto

Penny Sisto learned to sew at the age of 3, growing up on the remote Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland. Her unique, narrative quilts have brought her international recognition because of the estimable craft, but also for the colorful, humanist quality of the characters and stories she discovers. The social consciousness that is an important aspect of her work is brought to the fore in her latest work, to be exhibited at The Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany Indiana beginning February 16, 2018.

The Sixties – Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out! continues to follow many of the themes that has been at the center of Sisto’s work over the years — exploring people, politics, art, music, and spirituality — but presents them looking through the prism of the 1960s.” - Carnegie Center for Art & History website.

Keith Waits: The new exhibit reaches back to the 1960’s. Why is that period important to you now?

Penny Sisto: The Sixties were the years in which I escaped - leaving the Islands for the Highlands of Scotland.

I worked some really low level jobs: a chambermaid in a seedy hotel - I was fired for being late! We were expected to be there at 4:00 am and I had no funds for the bus and in snowy weather I would roll in an hour later. Then I was a seamstress in a factory setting. I was fired for bad, inaccurate sewing. I got an even lower paying job as an alteration sewer in a big store. I was fired again, this time for leading a walkout in protest after a fellow seamstress got electrocuted by old wiring on her steam iron. I sewed hats as a piece worker and was fired for bad and sloppy sewing.

Then my pregnancy began to show, which was a bad situation back then! It was December, and Anna was born at home in January. Life could go nowhere but up.

"Imagine" by Penny Sisto, 

"Imagine" by Penny Sisto, 

I began to become aware of music - the Beatles of course, then came the Art. I started making art and clothing, and selling them successfully.

I continued practicing my midwifery skills, and it was hard to keep up with the demand - I did more and more babies, went to Africa, and helped women safely deliver more babies. It was there I met my first American friends. They were all Peace Corps members. I got pregnant with Tulsi, AKA baby  #4, married her Dad, came to the USA and after 6 months of working as Janitor for the Armenian Church just off Harvard Square we saved enough to buy an old VW bus and drive across the country to a commune in the Sierra Foothills in Northern California. When I got there the first person to greet us was Richard Sisto! I guess it was Kismet!

Having grown up in an area where everything was circular, including the old underground houses that in those days were still left wide open for us to play in and explore, growing up in an area and an era when Freedom was yours unless there were chores to be done on the farm and school was in one room and was discontinued at harvest time or times of big storms. My life was lived with few boundaries. If I milked and did my farm chores I was unsupervised, wild. I wore feathers in my hair, went to school only if forced, could edge so close to the seals and puffins that they learned to ignore me, stayed out all the light-filled nights of midsummer - that far north you can read a book at midnight outside.

KW: When did you first begin to reference Native American culture in your work?


PS: The myths of Northern Scotland and my islands are so akin to Native American as to become one quilt. Even the hats worn by Scottish soldiers are called Bonnets - War Bonnets. Our villages are called Clans. All Clans become one in my heart and mind.

The eagle and hawks are sacred magical creatures of our myths, and the salmon is known as the oldest Teacher on this earth, so when I came to America the only society that resonated within me and felt safe was the easy cross-over to Native American ways of looking at this Earth, our Great Mother. I worship in a raggedy old tipi, or the yurt if the tipi is too cold.

KW: You seem to exhibit in two-year cycles. How soon do you know what will be the focus of the next body of work?

PS: As for showing quilts in 2 year cycles, I would show more if I had more galleries available or willing to take me.

I am a Drone, a mindless worker. The quilts arrive even if I don't pay attention; they literally pour into my mind and my clumsy fingers butcher them into being. They are never what I want nor what I envision, they are pale shadows, and as I age they become even less like my initial vision. Such is the way when one’s fingertips are 76!

KW: The narratives are always built around characters. Do you know who the characters are before you start a piece?

PS: The characters on them arrive fully formed. Sometimes I portray living people, but usually they come like cloud people, unknown cloud beings who insist on being seen.

KW: You have been known to incorporate some unexpected things in your work - you once told me a story about pubic hair; did you use any unorthodox materials in these quilts?

PS: Nothing like that here. In this series there are less unorthodox findings and fabrics just because my pantry of bones, beads, and baubles is a wee bit bare.

"Yippie" by Penny Sisto

"Yippie" by Penny Sisto


February 16 – April 21, 2018
Opening Reception February 16, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm

In addition to Sisto’s art quilts, the Carnegie Center will also be displaying a series of whimsical and joyful wooden benches created by Pierce Whites.

Carnegie Center for Art & History
201 E. Spring Street
New Albany, In.

Tuesday - Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Admission is always free.

"Nesting" by Penny Sisto

"Nesting" by Penny Sisto

"Solstice Moon" by Penny Sisto

"Solstice Moon" by Penny Sisto

Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2018 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

Are you interested in being on Artebella? Click here to learn more