New YorkMy Neighbor’s Garden
Madison Square Park,
June 26 – December 10, 2023
Sheila Pepe lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and inaugurated her first major public sculpture for the exhibition My Neighbor’s Garden at Madison Square Park, curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport. We sat down for a conversation at ArtBuilt, which holds studios for artists at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park and where Pepe has had a studio for a number of years. Pepe’s work since the mid-1980s has entailed sculpture installations, tabletop and furniture-type objects, drawings, and fiber as paintings. Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism, curated by Gilbert Vicario for the Phoenix Art Museum in 2017–2018 was the first mid-career survey of Pepe’s work, which utilizes craft traditions mixed with feminist, lesbian, queer, and twentieth-century aesthetics to challenge patriarchal forms of art making and the interior architecture her work is made and exhibited in. Originally from Morristown, NJ from a Roman Catholic Italian American immigrant community, Pepe makes work that engages parts of her personal narrative, specifically in the use of crochet, a tradition she learned from her mother in the 1960s and which remains the main medium for her ephemeral work.
Amanda Millet-Sorsa (Rail): Your first outdoor public commission at Madison Square Park is fabulous! What were some of the leading stages for this commission to come into light?
Pepe: The most beautiful thing about it was the experience. The timing was perfect because I was needing a big challenge to make a sculptural statement that wasn’t contingent on architecture, and which I hoped would give me a kind of fulcrum to bring the work to a place that wasn’t just about crocheting. My first thought was to connect to the trees, to which Brooke, the curator, and the arborists, responded that it’s a conservation space. I then had to create my own structure, which pushed it further into sculpture.
It’s also what the title conveys, because they are objects I might see in a neighbor’s garden. Those domes reminded me of the little domes on some people’s bird feeders to keep the squirrels out. The telephone poles are just something from my suburban childhood where they’re everywhere. When you’re a kid, you kind of play, putting fake or real signs on them. When we sited the posts, there was a rule that I had never encountered before, which is: you can’t put a post in where there are roots. That’s so cosmic! I had to sit with it for a while.
Rail: Why is it different from the conversations you’ve previously had with architecture indoors?
Pepe: It’s more beautiful outdoors! Some things are alive, so you can’t go everywhere. It places the artist in an interesting place, it just can’t be what you want it to be. You must adapt. This is a lot of what public sculpture is, if you’re willing to negotiate and have a conversation with the space. Brooke provided a lot of guidance, and she brought me into the conversation of public sculpture—asking me questions that made me clarify in new ways. That was exciting! I was learning new things along the way. I spoke with the horticulture team to bring their expertise to the beds and onto the structures where things could climb up. It was also different in that I wasn’t going to make everything—for example, the poles and the metal parts. And even though it’s part of my sculpture, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to crochet everything alone, as I have mostly done all of these years. It’s just too much material.
Rail: What was it like to mobilize people to get engaged at that level of installation?
Pepe: The plan evolved in a way that a lot of my work evolves, but it required a lot more communication, a lot more delegation, and a lot more administration. The crochet teams were first organized by Truth Murray-Cole from the MSPC curatorial team. I gave the crocheters two colors and two materials and two spools, this long measurement, and said, go for it! They do their thing. The horticulturalist came up with these beautiful bed designs based on this color scheme they all had. The plants would be climbers, and that is something I hadn’t quite imagined would happen. I also gave everyone different colors of material samples, while I tested materials outside for their durability and how they would change with light exposure. It’s not that I didn’t want things to change, it’s more to have additional information on how they might change. There would be forces that I couldn’t control, nor should control, in my mind. At the very end of the installation, in the last ten days, is the part where I performed that action of drawing/building with the fiber elements, using an accumulation of years of experience of various kinds, and sensitivity to sculptural languages. It gives me incredible satisfaction to be another worker “on the floor”—or in this case, in the air.
Rail: Aside from scaling up in your work, which was new territory to engage with such a large team, did you, in this case, have sketches that you worked with?
Pepe: I had a few drawings, some maps, but not really. I don’t want to make the drawing before it happens. Then it would just be copying something and I don’t want to do that—it’s really in the moment. It’s having to negotiate spaces that I can’t know completely. There was the longest 4-inch band, 35–40 foot crochet material that most of the team made, and I knew there were a lot of those to be used, as well as a few 60–90 foot-long stretches. The two long ones were the first that went in the longest path, because I needed to know what space the poll placement had made. I just needed to feel the flex in my hands, to have some sense of what they could withstand and load them up with other materials and see how well they did through a course of a couple of days.
Rail: In your sculpture, I was taken by how you mentioned that you have an improvisational approach to crocheting. You likened it to jazz, to salsa, to klezmer music. Could you elaborate on that approach?
Pepe: In crochet there are lots of loops on themselves accumulating, and then crocheting is particular in that it will let you know immediately if it’s structurally sound or not. My only rule is it has to be structurally sound. I don’t necessarily care which hole you put your crochet hook in. Now, most of the crocheters that we brought together to do this project in the park are real crocheters. For some it was fun for them to not have those rules. For others, they were sort of like, “really?… Tell me more!” And I would indicate just this long and this wide. There’s a kind of syncopation of the movement just because of the way you hold that tension. You can go forward and backward and forward and backward and build up something. You can build up dimension.
Rail: Your work has taken this monumental scale both inside and outside. There is a conversation with interior architecture or in this case the trees in the park. How do you begin? Can you take us through your process?
Pepe: Years ago, in the beginning, I asked for a copy or jpeg of the floor plan and elevation. I would photocopy a ton of those drawings of the plan and make scribble drawings on them in regular ballpoint pen. My friend Jenn Joy likened it to choreography: I’ll go here, and then I’ll go over here, and then I’ll go back and forth. Then I’d erase, or I would just do the next one. And I would just try out means of visualizing the space. As time passed, I would get a lot of jpegs. And then in other cases, if there was a budget and time, I would do a site visit.
Rail: You’re responding to the space and the structure?
Pepe: I’m responding to the space as the white box, and whatever quirks there are, in that iteration of the white box: the ceiling or weird things on the wall or pipes or whatever it is. I try to draw attention to that and do things like wrap around a piece of ceiling so the audience can tell, you’re never going to get it out of there without cutting it out. I’m hoping for that question. I’m showing you, it’s got to be cut out, because now it’s one solid thing. In that way, I’m telling you, it’s not about the object in that way, it’s about this experience that I’ve provided, through object, and as captured vistas of drawings. A dynamic modernist drawing made out of crochet, which is in itself, you know, funny. They become mutable objects. The installations, and the ones that are in the catalogue, Hot Mess Formalism, are precisely ones that, afterwards, went away completely.
Rail: They’re meant to be destroyed?
Pepe: Yes, and they’re cannibalized for next pieces. So that’s why you see certain color schemes pop up again, because it’s the same materials.
Rail: You feed from the previous work, the beginnings of new work?
Pepe: I used to call it sourdough, like a starter. Food is ubiquitous and it’s a good analogy engine. Someone is making something out of chocolate and I’m making this monumental abstract drawing in space out of yarn and shoelaces and rope and just stuff you can get wherever.
Rail: You’ve also made a lot of drawings?
Pepe: The drawings are separate. I’ve tried different patterns of moving through the space, in those drawings. After the first five years, those kinds of drawings go away, because I can just do it in my head as I’ve done it so many times. Now I trust that when I get there, I walk around, and then drive around in a scissor lift, putting dots on the walls to mark and to connect them.
Just connecting all the dots (as hardware), and then another one crocheted, and then tying pieces together and crocheting pieces together. And then sculpting the space and the image, walking through and basically making it on site. Sometimes I’ll get a form or a line, and it’s too long or too volumetric. And with crocheting, you can erase, with a combination of crochet and shoelaces, you can go anywhere, and then untie a set of shoelaces and just pull. It’s this grand eraser. There were some things about the mechanics of the chosen materials that made it good as a drawing material. And there’s joy in that for me. I think of them as big drawings in space. I was thinking of myself as a painter who was using crochet. I wasn’t thinking of it as a craft. I was adopted by the craft and fiber people, which was sweet, but
Rail: You grew up in a community in Morristown, New Jersey that was very much centered around labor, where your parents owned a deli and you worked in it. I’ve heard you mention that the handmade and your hand in the making is very crucial to your work. What is it about the handmade that is so essential?
Pepe: It’s a position. The thing I made most when I was at the Museum School at Tufts (SMFA) was video, because it was a fast way to get a lot of ideas out. When I came out into the art world as an exhibiting artist, I wanted to hand-make stuff, because there was already a lot of video around. I wanted to learn what was really going on and what the conversation was, and what to speak back—because I was talking back to the values around me. That’s what I think making art is—it’s a conversation. It’s knowing oneself and knowing one’s position, vis-à-vis what’s going on in the world.
To talk back directly to the other artists, those are my first audience, and then other people who are looking at art, and then just other people who might enjoy it. I’m going to keep everybody in the tent. So the labor part of it was that I could see this digital thing was going to be heavy. In the late nineties, the internet was there, email was coming, but there would be TV reports revealing the earliest self-check-out scanners at a supermarket, and signifying “this is the way of the future… don’t worry, experts say none of this will ever take your job away.” And I remember thinking they were so full of shit. Hand-making things keeps you closer to other people. You have to order your materials from someone and have a discussion with somebody that is across the country. You will not agree about almost anything but the stuff at hand. It takes me outside the art bubble.
Rail: Where do you source your materials from?
Pepe: A lot in the Midwest. And there are some people down south who were selling rope on eBay, and for the smaller, handmade works, like the smaller crocheted works, there’s a woman down in Louisiana that has a stash of vintage material that I love. If there’s anything really great about the internet, it’s that. I can start having these relationships with people who are in different places and economic situations where business is still pretty much at a rural scale, which is, you know, a big part of what I learned about living in Western Mass. I was eventually working for farmers out there and this relationship between people and their generations of doing things. When I came back to New York, I wanted to stay close in some way to the generations of Pepes before me, who worked to get me here. But who, because of issues of education, would never in a million-fucking-years understand what I was up to, and why. Until my work started to become more public, it was a mystery to them, what I was doing.
Rail: The hand-making was something they could connect with. And you could connect with them.
Pepe: Yeah. The earlier work, for instance, when I moved to primarily crocheting installations, the first one was similar to my earlier work in the “Doppelgänger” series, Josephine (1999). There were shadows and drawings on the wall; it was installed at the old Thread Waxing Space in Soho. It seemed to be a test of taste, I could say now. But also, and this has to do with the hand labor, more laborious, for no particular reason except for honoring the act of labor. I was very keen to know what the class implications were, because I lived in those class implications—of labor. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, did incredibly beautiful, fancy lace work. It’s Italian lace with cotton thread. It’s a few weights up from real lace and she made decorative doilies, huge tablecloths, and my sister’s clothes.
Rail: This kind of craft really tied you to what you saw in your family community. What were the class issues?
Pepe: The class and ethnicity issues for the children and grandchildren of southern Italians are always the same. If you’re Italian, you’re low class. There aren’t many options, mostly because you’re working with your hands. Those are the jobs you get, the kind of work you do when you need to survive. It’s hard to get at that in art. When I’m first addressing this thing about taste, it’s hard to get people on board because it looks tasteless. [Laughs] You know what I mean?
Rail: The crochet?
Pepe: Yeah, so I alter it. I’m using mid-century modernist aesthetics to resolve the overall composition as I’m having to assimilate it up. And at times, I get a little frilly or make things that look like vines. In the beginning it was all cheap yarn and then shoelaces. It had many literal meanings: my grandfather had a shoe repair shop. It’s nice to be able to tell that story and it connotes some family history and leaves the associations with that in the gutter of the work.
I haven’t been in the art world for five generations and I went to a small Catholic school. There are a bunch of us coming up through this organization here called Art and we’re looking to see ourselves. We’re looking to see ourselves as gay people. As lesbians. As women. As Italians. I was a huge fan of Arte Povera! I just thought, freaking brilliant, and I even met Michelangelo Pistoletto before he died. He’s Papa, better than the Pope. I mean, I just think he was a genius artist.
Rail: Why do you think there is a tradition of this hand-making within aunts, mothers, and sisters?
Pepe: There was a time, and I can tell you, it was in my mother’s time, and definitely in my grandmother’s life, when they simply did not have the money to buy something extravagant looking. They had to make it. There are people who are still living that life. The hand is also something that I think persists as a value. It’s everybody’s hands. People working with their hands whose work is rarely honored, or even seen. Seen is the big one. Crocheting has been like that. It’s your aunt, cousin, godmother, your mother or grandmother. They’re not famous artists. They’re just ladies.
A lot of things that artists do are things that had a real unparalleled purpose. The forms in sculpture are all historically part of architecture. That’s my biggest peeve in the art world is that people don’t understand how to read sculpture. Because of that we still have this very muddy conversation about art and craft, or painting and craft, or any one of the arts and craft. I think Glenn Adamson has done a lot to make that better, but I think that there’s still a willingness to call a lot of craft “art.” I’m sorry, it’s not. There’s a language to be learned, in sculpture especially, many languages, because there are so many traditions it’s pulling from.
Rail: I understand your personal history has shaped a lot of the materials that you use in your work. From learning how to crochet, which is something that your mother taught you, and then using shoelaces, which as you said, ties you to your grandfather, who was a cobbler. At what point did crochet become a core part of your practice?
Pepe: What prompted the kind of focus on the crocheting, and my autobiographical tale, is this: I moved back to the New York area, from Boston, where I went to school—afterwards I lived in a lesbian community, etc. I became acquainted with the places where the Pepe side of my family lived, where they worked in mostly Brooklyn and Manhattan, and that they came through Ellis Island. Suddenly, everything felt oddly autobiographical. But most of all, because there were women artists in my generation making very similar kinds of bricolage work with junk drawer sensibility. On a grand scale, more often, all the references these artists were making were to male artists and there was a generation of women that were getting skipped over again, and it pissed me off.
I realized that feminism was being preserved, but only in this way that was about jumping over women that had come before. The nineties also felt easier for me because there was an ability to say some things about identity and multiple identities. There was a kind of expectation of multi-valence in our world as a queer, Italian, lesbian… Harvard University Art Gallery owns one of my early works in the “Dopplegänger” series made when I still lived in Cambridge, that has all this plaster and one shoelace. There were these cues in the early work, so once I moved to New York, I had these things around me.
Rail: The “Doppelgänger” series” (1994–ongoing) were your first works started in New England?
Pepe: My work got noticed by Roberta Smith in a couple of good and important group shows from that era, one at the ICA in Boston, called Gothic. These works are still an open-ended practice called the “Doppelgänger” series where I made, and still make, little objects, tabletop size objects, and attach them to the wall with wire or a shelf and then cast a little focused light on them with electricity. They’re cobbled together by things I got either from Home Depot or RadioShack. The focal part of the work was this juxtaposition of an abstract object in the language of bricolage next to its shadow, and a quick and immediate drawing in pencil, gouache, or watercolor drawn into the shadow and negative space of that object on the wall. The conversation between representation and abstraction of the pieces was tied to each other by the phenomenon of light, and the entire operation was plugged into the socio-economic and electrical infrastructure of wherever it was. If you unplugged it, it was gone. There was always this embedded sense of simple work.
Rail: Was crochet simply something that you saw in your surroundings?
Pepe: It was one of the things I could do. But when I crocheted a little bit, I saw I could crochet a lot. I can make these little blue crocheted things that I was seeing as a kind of projection field for imageries. That was very much like the photogram drawings, these poppy pattern-y blue and white fields where you could collapse space and investigate it. I’d draw in and out of those images, the photographic images in blue, and it was really trying to arrest the image, arrest the shadow.
Rail: Was there work at that time being made with crochet?
Rail: I understand you are one of the first generations in your family from Morristown, after your cousins and siblings, to go to college and receive an education. Having gone from a place where your life was largely centered around labor, and then suddenly being immersed in working on your mind, in New England, during your experience in undergrad and graduate studies, were there some critical professors or mentors who had an effect on you and contributed to your growth?
Pepe: The beginning of the life of the mind was when I was at Albertus Magnus College and the Dominican Sisters, like Sister Joan, who taught philosophy classes, and other teachers in the liberal arts, contributed to my understanding of possibility. I got a lot by observing and listening. When I got to college, I began to know how to make an argument for and against something. We found out about the Malleus Maleficarum or, in English, “The Hammer of Witches.” I would later learn—when I was at Mass Art, I came out as a lesbian and got politicized—that that text was written by Dominican priests! Suddenly I got it: the family, the academy, the church, the government, the whole thing—it’s a system. Once you blow that open, and you begin to understand all of that and see it in parallax, then you get angry, and you start doing shit.
Rail: When you came out as a lesbian, and you got involved in the feminist movement, were there certain writers or pieces of writing that moved you or changed your worldview?
Pepe: There were always books around. Kitchen Table Press was a big thing and we saw Audre Lorde speak. It was amazing. It was New England, and there were all these colleges—these women were constantly coming up to lecture. I would read parts of books, then we would get together and people would read out loud to each other. It was mostly oral, going and listening to them speak, and getting a drift of what they were saying. Then eventually, I was also critical of what they were saying. Mary Daly was the person we all followed in Boston. A bunch of us were Catholics or former Catholics, and she was doing something with language we hadn’t experienced before called “reversing the reversals.” It was this idea that you would just listen to everything the patriarchy says, and know the opposite of that is the truth, and other tools that she would give us with language. Big women-only crowds that were getting this kind of point of view for the first time. Andrea Dworkin! Amazing, fierce, and fabulous. Sonia Johnson. Some of these women were professional feminists in a way that would not allow self-criticism. I had already by that time understood that being an artist meant knowing yourself and looking into your own identity and what we would now call the construction of your identity and the world you live in. Self-criticism was a natural part of analyzing in this way.
Rail: And how did you come to that understanding of what an artist is?
Pepe: First, Sister Thoma taught us—we read Ben Shahn’s “The Education of an Artist.” As Ben Shahn would say, part of the education of the artist: you do everything; you get a job, you filter all of life, you study, you read, you draw a lot, you take in the world and consider yourself in that world and make work. And I knew as a young person, having been shown his work, that he was political—I loved and still love his work. And he wasn’t the kind of artist that I eventually wanted to be in 1995 because I was fused with other ideas about what feminist work looked like. There was a show at the Rose Art Museum on Post-Minimalism, with Lynda Benglis, Michelle Stuart, and Nancy Graves, curated by Susan L. Stoops called More than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the ’70s. It was basically the premise that Post-Minimalism was a feminist movement, which we now acknowledge that of course it was.
Rail: So how did you come to realize that these artists that you just mentioned, and others like Nancy Spero—became influential?
Pepe: I met Spero when I was working at the Smith College Museum of Art. I had already moved on to another job at the Springfield Art Museum, but I had been a curatorial intern when her work was scheduled, so I would hang out there after work while they were printing on the wall. She wrote in for me for grad school, and I interviewed her for this feminist magazine.
Rail: Why was this group of feminist artists the ones that spoke to you the most? I remember you also saying that you were looking for someone that you could find a model in? There were no Italian-American women artists at all.
Pepe: I think when you’re young, you think, who like me has done this? I think, looking where I was, I was looking for models—can I have this life? Will people pay attention to me? Have they paid attention to people like me? Earlier in my education, when I went back to grad school, I realized that you had to be able to speak in a visual and verbal language that people understood. If they didn’t quite understand it, you had to teach them how you were using the language we shared, and just emotionally I needed to think, ”other women have done this.”
I met Benglis, and I thought, "Oh my God, she’s a hot chick." [Laughter] And a brainiac! But they’re all straight women. Then there were gay men my age, peers, who were out there doing very well, and had grown up in the New York art world. When I was at Skowhegan, I was the oldest person there at thirty-two years. Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt came up and spoke to us, and it was 1994. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall. He started to tell us the story: “Oh, all those educated white boys took it over, but it was drag queens and Black people who made Stonewall happen!”
He came up to my studio and pointed out “What about this? Put this on this.” He has a sensibility that’s really queer—provisional materials and these kinds of common things that you can get in the dime or five and ten cents store, or you find on the street and mix it into something fabulous. My sensibility is similar, since for part of the work, when I first started, I bought Red Heart yarn skeins from Woolworths.
Rail: Did you call that an improvisational sensibility? Why is that a queer sensibility?
Pepe: It’s kind of improvisational, performative, provisional—I’ve got no money and I need to make something cool. In the queer community, there was often the sense of, I can do a lot with nothing, and it will be fabulous. It was also a lesbian feminist thing. Let’s have a potluck. How are we going to pay for it? Some people will use their money, some people will pay at the door, more if you can, less if you can’t. That kind of frugality—maybe it was New England frugality? Organizing to just spend time together.
Rail: You have this very rich autobiography that you’ve held with you your whole life, fought for, and discovered different things about yourself. Your family background is that you’re from a Roman Catholic, Italian American immigrant family living in New Jersey. Why is it that your family autobiography has become such a seminal part of developing your work?
Pepe: The influences and references are so diverse and, maybe unfortunately, my generation of teachers thought it was important to bring your personal story to bear because we were told we could not as students. We were not allowed. Before us you could not say anything personal about your work. It was completely formal. Weirdly formal, with male teachers saying “a woman made that because there are circles in it.” I’ve always had this question of, “How did I get here?” How do you negotiate a cultural rift so deep with your family? There is so much about my life as an artist and lesbian that is nothing like my parents’ life and nothing they would recognize and probably approve of. I never came out to my parents. Eventually I came out to my father because he was curious.
Rail: Your personal story also includes coming out as a lesbian, and you were involved in the feminist movement. Why is that important to your work?
Pepe: I’d already made a life and become empowered as a lesbian. I even forgot that I was a lesbian, which is the nicest thing that could happen. Because you’re not worried. And I forgot I had a mustache. You just are who you are and you’re doing your thing. You’re speaking your truth, and you’re teaching and you’re laughing, and you’re listening to other people’s stories and trying to make a connection through your own experience. That’s my hope for everyone—that we could kind of forget it. Until recently, because of what’s happening in the world. Now we must all remember it. We have to be cautious again. But I’ve made a point to say it over and over over the years because there are always young people who are coming and need to hear it and see it outloud.
The market will use whatever it has to offer—whatever story I have to offer you, I could’ve marketed all my work if I had chosen to not make it ephemeral on the story that I’m telling you. One of the biggest things I wanted to say is: art is not a commodity, it’s an experience. It’s a way of making meaning. I wanted some visibility, not just as a lesbian and a feminist.
For me, the importance was that the story I’m telling you, and the things that I’m making, that either align with that story or don’t align with that story, are propositions that I want to put out in the world. That’s my bully pulpit that comes with the space I’m taking. I’m taking the space and I’m making it fun, weird, familiar, because it’s crocheting, and making it something different for whoever enters. I’m taking the space a second time by telling this story.