Penny Sisto at 80
Carnegie Center for Art & History
February 3 – April 9, 2022
The following text was written by Julie Leidner for the Penny Sisto at 80 exhibition catalog at the Carnegie Center for Art & History in 2022:
The Carnegie Center for Art & History presents Penny Sisto at 80, an exhibition of recent works by the venerated New Albany fiber artist, and the 80-year-old Sisto’s eighth exhibition at CCAH. These works reveal a return of the artist’s focus to well-loved subjects from her career as an artist and midwife: powerful women, mothers with children, Goddesses and other spiritual figures — all assembled from scraps of fabric, adorned with her signature diamond-like sewn details.
The Scottish-born Penny Sisto has spent the past 33 years making expressive quilts (by some estimates about 200 per year) in a cabin in the woods bordering the Mount St. Francis Monastery in Floyds Knobs, IN. Recognizable in this most recent series are some of the artist’s favored motifs from over the decades, from humanoid creatures with antlers, women holding children, the artist Frida Kahlo, to various religious icons — each figure appearing like a recurring dream or a memory from a past artistic exploration.
Sisto has often created and exhibited her work in collections addressing a singular theme, such as Slavery Stories: Threads of Strength and Fortitude (Carnegie Center for Art and History, 2006), and series depicting the violences of the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic. However, the work in this year’s Penny Sisto at 80 was created without a predetermined theme in mind. Made during a period of time when the artist was isolated from her nine adult children and their families due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the frequent smiles and maternal figures throughout these nearly thirty new works are visions of a welcoming future or past. The pain that surfaced in some of Sisto’s previous collections is covert in this one. Orbs of light, halos, auras, and celestial bodies are dotted throughout the work as signifiers of protection for the artist. “I feel safest in places with no corners,” says Sisto, who spends time each day in either her yurt, her teepee, or the rounded outdoor sauna on her rustic homestead. The exhibition includes intimate footage of Sisto as she moves through these spaces on a recent winter morning.
Passing through brutality into a space of healing is a way of life for Sisto, who learned midwifery from her grandfather in their remote village in the Orkney Islands. He was the town healer, but also a ruthless abuser who, as she told Louisville Magazine in 2020, “turned family-tree branches into circles.” By her count she has helped birth 2,500 babies naturally, from her own daughters’ children, residents of a California commune in the 1970’s, and women in Maasai tribal villages in rural East Africa, where she learned beading and collage methods that informed aspects of her art practice.
The artist’s first quilt, stitched when she was a child in 1948 with household materials, is displayed alongside thirty of Sisto’s newest works. In Penny Sisto at 80, the circles that form the number 8 remind us that aging, along with the passage of time, is not a straight line from beginning to end. A deeply spiritual number in many of the world’s religions, the number 8 looks like an hourglass upright, but viewed sideways, it is a symbol of perpetuity and opportunity for rebirth.