Research Station, 2014, crocheted with locally resourced materials
Sheila Pepe was one of the very first crochet artists that I profiled on this blog more than five years ago. She is giving a talk today about her work at East Tennessee State University, so I thought it was a great time to revisit what she does. Her work is definitely relevant to issues affecting society today.
Sheila Pepe in T-7 Pauseway, designed “to make a place of congregation and conversation”
Sheila has an extensive body of work, including crochet but also incorporating other mediums and techniques. She is known not only for her interactive crochet installations but also for her work in feminist activism and the LGBTQ community. One of the things that I shared in the original profile was that she said:
“I came out as a Lesbian Feminist (for a time, Lesbian Separatist) in Boston in 1981, which means I was also among a group of women who were proud to call ourselves Feminists just as it was waning in fashion. Soon after, Feminism was embattled in what I remember as “the Culture Wars,” and I can recall my resistance to the “split,” promising myself to invest in Feminism’s basic promise: to stand as a woman empowered to name all of the disparate parts of her life, and in doing so, take the first step in building bridges toward social justice. Then as now, Feminism is something lived everyday, and as such, lives in my work.”
Choosing to work in the medium of crochet is itself relevant to feminism. It relates to the domestic sphere of traditional women’s work, which has been challenged as an art form over time and now, of course, appeals to women (and men) of all ages. Sheila herself had to work through her own feelings about craft and feminism. She went three decades without crocheting as she developed herself as an artist. In regards to her activism, she says,
“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.”
Sheila does installation crochet work that she considers improvisational (or freeform) because it develops in response to the space in which it is installed. “One installation, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, actually moved as the gallery’s elevator rose and fell.” Crochet is a flexible medium for working in freeform. As Sheila said, “You can go line. You can go volume. You can just drive it around in any which way and I like that mutability.”
One of my favorite pieces that she’s done is called Yo Mama (above), a piece in which women chart their matrilineal heritage through knot work. There is some great info on this in her interview with Elif Gul Turbin. In a review for Las Vegas Weekly, Danielle Kelly writes,
“Pepe’s large-scale installations utilize crochet and various other material references to home and family as inherently personal, yet actively feminist, gestures … The domestic becomes feminist, elevated and owned, while the collaborative effort erases ego and celebrates community.“
Sheila Pepe crochets with non-traditional materials including shoelaces, rope and textile remnants.