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Tying up & leaving loose ends: Improvisational crochet artist to share legacy, artist talk at ETSU

Contributed To The Press • Feb 3, 2017 at 10:11 PM

Her Italian-American mother taught Sheila Pepe 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 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 loops and knots thousands of laces together to form sprawling installations as she moves from the personal to the monumental, from the space of her lap into the space of architecture. … ” reviewer Ryan Johnson says in BOMB.

Pepe will share her artistic vision – conceptual and crocheted, personal and monumental – with the campus community and public 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 Gallery.

“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. We have been attempting to schedule her for a number of years now and are so glad it has worked out this spring.”

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 that she puts together 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. “The crochet hook … 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 I broke with tradition in a very serious way – by engaging in a life of the mind.”

She often engages students and others by inspiring them to knit or create pieces that she weaves into her larger installations, then bonding all that together with her own.

“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, State University of New York-Purchase and School of Visual Arts, 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.”

Her visual art and her activism are all of one piece, Pepe says. “I’m a citizen in my work and how it gets done,” she says. “I’m a worker whose work is just more abstract and, oddly, nearly useless.

“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. 6 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 this agenda for the talk will inspire in ETSU’s campus and greater community “CURIOSITY! The best reason for even going to college at all!”

For more information on Pepe, visit www.sheilapepe.com.

For information about the artist talk or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587).

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