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.

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Feature: Tom Marsh Legacy

“By practicing a potentially usable art and by insisting on its usability, and the commonness and local peculiarity of his materials, he points it toward the older, finer, healthier sort of artistic success: that such excellent workmanship, such beauty and distinction, might again become ordinary.“ — Wendell Berry on Tom Marsh*

Artists, Ginny & Tom Marsh.

Artists, Ginny & Tom Marsh.

If past is indeed prologue, then perhaps we live in the present only by the leave of our ancestors; formative influences, and most especially our teachers. Tom Marsh was a teaching artist in the Greater Louisville area for more than 25 years, first at Silver Creek High School in his native Indiana during the 1960’s, and then as the founder of the Ceramics program at the University of Louisville’s Hite Institute for Art, where he taught until his death, in 1991.

It is also said, by those who loved and admired him the most, that he was demanding. Surely this is a requisite quality for any worthwhile mentor, and, from all accounts, Marsh set expectations as high for his own work as he did for anyone else, and the program he developed for U of L was unorthodox, moving beyond traditional studio parameters. Certainly experience has taught us that innovation often translates for some as ‘difficult’.

Marsh was raised by missionaries, and studied painting with Mary Spencer Nay at the University of Louisville. A missionary trip took him to Mashiko, Japan, where he ended up staying for several years, studying pottery with Sakuma Totaro (1900-1976), and learning various strands of Buddhism, most notably Rinzai. Once he returned to the U.S. he eventually resettled in Borden, Indiana, living his later years in adherence to ethical and spiritual practices born of his time in Japan, building an aesthetically spare house in the secluded woods that featured multi-functional space - the bed was raised on pulleys to make room for working.

Works by Marsh Pottery,   Install Image from UofL Faculty show (1984) . Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

Works by Marsh Pottery, Install Image from UofL Faculty show (1984) . Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

This holistic approach was indicative of what University of Louisville colleague and current faculty Jim Grubola calls the, “potter-philosopher” ideal that Marsh strived to embody. He brought it into his teaching, breaking out of the confines of the studio to instruct students in building outdoor kilns as a part of curriculum, a practice that brought many conflicts with both the Louisville Fire Department and University officials.

"  Approaching" by Marsh Pottery,   conjunction in situ (1992). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Approaching" by Marsh Pottery, conjunction in situ (1992). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

As for the work, Marsh’s ceramic pottery follows the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty – “art,” in the strictly functional: large scale vessels for storage (because smaller pieces for daily use were commonly made from lacquer or wood), and tea pots. The full, earthen physicality might seem to contradict the western (mis) perception of delicacy as a defining characteristic of Japanese art; these are full, solid forms of visual and tactile weight. Their functionality never feels in question.

Another U of L associate, retired Print Faculty John Whitesell, describes how Marsh developed his techniques for the “expanded form jar,” in which the walls of the vessel are pushed to their limits and the outer surface begins to “crack”: “He would go beyond what you would imagine was possible… he would just keep working it, and working it.” The resulting complex, “fractured” surface texture became a trademark of Marsh’s work, a careful balance between structural integrity and creative aesthetic. However much the artist valued function, the rustic, earthy beauty of the work was always astonishing.

Whitesell also talks of “the anonymous potter,” which is a term that evolved when Marsh worked alongside his wife, Ginny Marsh. In the images of work shown here, from a 1984 sabbatical exhibit at U of L’s Schneider Galleries, all of the work is identified as simply Marsh Pottery, with no distinction given as to which Marsh created which piece. While there may be some who felt they could detect differences, Grubola, for one, could not be certain, because the nature of the vessels had gone in such an elemental direction: “Particularly towards the end,” says Grubola, “the work became more intuitive and less refined.”

"Mark" by Tom Marsh. Photo Courtesy of Hite Art Institute.

"Mark" by Tom Marsh. Photo Courtesy of Hite Art Institute.

Students came to U of L to study with Marsh specifically tolearn the Japanese-based techniques and life philosophy he expounded. Laura Ross, Wayne Ferguson, Sarah Frederick, Fong Choo, Pam Korte, Bran Hazelet, and Gwen Heffner are but a few notable potters for whom Marsh was a mentor, and many of them still live, work and teach in the area.

"Teapot" by Ginny and Tom Marsh

"Teapot" by Ginny and Tom Marsh

All of the concentration suggests that Marsh never did anything halfway. One of his teaching tools were sophisticated, multi-media presentations that he also took all around the U.S. at a time when such things were not common. “For someone so dedicated to a simple agrarian lifestyle,” remembers Whitesell, ”Tom was well-versed in technology, and had multiple projections fading in and out… synched to a pre-recorded soundtrack. It was very impressive.”

"These pots and cups and bowls are not busy calling attention to themselves as 'art objects.' Their preferred habitat is a kitchen, not a museum. They invite use. They are not just viewed. Viewing, by itself, will misunderstand them--just as, by itself, it
will misunderstand the food." — Wendell Berry

Examples of Marsh pottery are in permanent collections of museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in Kamajura, Japan.

Name: Tom Marsh (1934 -1991)
Hometown: Sellersburg, Indiana

The Marsh's 30 cubic foot cross draft salt kiln (c.1979). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

The Marsh's 30 cubic foot cross draft salt kiln (c.1979). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"  Approaching Conjunction"   by Marsh Pottery,   stoneware   (1984). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Approaching Conjunction" by Marsh Pottery, stoneware (1984). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Vase with Brass Rings" by Marsh Pottery, 14in H, coarse stoneware   (1973). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

"Vase with Brass Rings" by Marsh Pottery, 14in H, coarse stoneware (1973). Photograph courtesy of the Hite Art Institute.

Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2017 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

*From “Tom Marsh/Potter: Twenty Three Years of Clay”, published by University of Louisville, 1979.

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

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