Mistake House: Here at Mistake House Magazine, we are interested in the ways in which the creative practice intersects with a sense of place and home. You have cited your experience walking across the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn as having inspired your piece Redhook at Bedford Terrace. How does your work draw inspiration from the tactility of cities and boroughs such as Brooklyn and your experiences within them?
Sheila Pepe: I’ve been really fortunate to have really loved the various places that I have lived over the years. I tend to really dig in—wherever I am. Even when I travel to teach or make work, I make home right away.
For years I lived in Massachusetts in Boston, and the adjacent cities of Cambridge and Somerville, as well out in Western Mass in both Ashfield and South Deerfield. When I lived in these rural parts I worked for farmers, had a big garden, learned bird songs, and even joined the Grange. I really learned a lot about community and difference and living and working with people who are truly different.
So, it seems to me, when I moved to New York City twenty-some years ago, having this massive sense of inevitability, there was something I couldn’t see until after I moved here. Part of it was, of course, being in the city as an artist. But it turned out that was the least of it. One of my first trips was to Ellis Island. My connection was first and foremost as the place my grandparents landed—this is my Plymouth Rock and all of the American assimilation that I did up north could only be seen in context by returning to the 20th century story that got my people to this country and made me. That’s a lot. But it was very grounding, and one half of my New York equation. It’s the people—all of them—massively different from each other on a scale that is likely unique in the country. There is something about that degree of diversity that puts me at ease, makes me feel I truly belong, that each of us takes our particular role in this perfect, enormous set of cultural, human diversity. And finally, I think it was important for me to move from the 20th into the 21st century in this city—to watch a city whose century was the 20th move, very reluctantly, into a new role as one among many global cities. It’s a good place to be while we all learn to take off the mask of “American exceptionalism.”
MH: Your Common Sense series and your 2007 piece Bus Lines highlight the importance of the viewer, inviting them into your work. You emphasized this concept in your interview with Elif Gül Tirben, stating that audience participation transforms the installation into something they have created, that Common Sense “was not controlled by me in the end, but by the audience.” How do you conceptualize the audience when you are creating a new piece?
SP: As a sculptor, I am always aware of all of the body and all of the mind of the viewer. That beyond the visual cues given by paintings, for example, objects and installations take up space, creating obstacles and pathways. I’ve played a lot over the years at the boundaries of painting (or drawing) and sculpture in the installations. I do it by giving you competing information of whether you will navigate the space by eye, or by “touch”—or both. Most of us would prioritize these two senses depending on how our brain works or how we’ve been trained. I like stimulating those parts of our intelligence. There are many other borders I like to expand with the work: what is recognizable and what is not (or what we call abstract), degrees of porosity and density, micro and macro, and other continuums like that. I also play with ideas of style, and taste and test thresholds of what “high art” might be.
The Common Sense series and the work that began in Istanbul when I met Elif in 2013 both test the definition of “art.” In the former, the question is, “Who makes it and what form does it take?” and in the latter, “Where is the boundary between art and design?”
Common Sense starts with me making this thing in situ that looks like art. During the course of the exhibition, visitors are invited to events during which they unravel the materials and knit and crochet to make their own useful things to take home. A successful end to each iteration is a naked rope that’s been installed as the supporting structure. So one of the basic questions is who makes the art—me or the audience?
The work in Istanbul was my first foray into making things that became used by the audience. I took work that would have been simply installed as a “corner piece”—in this case, a textile that literally traced the corner where the wall meets the floor—and stuck a cushion under some of the floor segments, or simply sat on the thick textile to use as a mat that lightly cushioned one’s seat and back. I pushed work that would have normally only been viewed into service as a kind of furnishing. Since then, I’ve made installations that include structures that become furniture, actual furniture to be used in the galleries, as well as actual furniture that is presented as a sculpture only to be seen and contemplated. I don’t think any of this would have happened without my long use of textiles. This craft form simply begs us to poke at the long history of textile forms holding these lurking questions in the minds of viewers and critics.
MH: In your Six Feet Apart interview with the Vermont Studio Center, you speak about identifying as queer and a butch lesbian, and your difficulty with the label “gay” since it was used to “other” certain women. How do you work artistically to simultaneously empower queer identity while combating social othering?
SP: Well, that is a long story and one you might think began the moment I came out as a lesbian, but it was much earlier. Looking back, I can now see many instances when my classmates or the kids in the neighborhood offered comments we’d now call “micro-aggressions” about me being Italian-American and having a body type that went along with it. Of course, it meant I grew up thinking I was fat and weird. Back then we just sucked it up.
When I came out, all of the alienation was both inside and out. I carried my own homophobia and misogyny around with me as a daughter of patriarchy. Being me felt dangerous both inside and out. And back then, it was dangerous out in the world to be queer. I think the first step is being with others like yourself and working hard to pull apart those lessons and learn to see the kind of intolerance we are taught for both ourselves and others. Once we learn to celebrate our own difference, it’s easier to do the same for others. Early on I learned that my own self-acceptance is the key to others seeing me. And I’ve always felt that being different was a kind of gift—a chance to see it and love it in others.
MH: You mentioned in your video interview with John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Even thread [has] a speech, that you often want to respond to architecture in the same way you want to respond to patriarchy, “by putting your two cents in and feminizing the space.” You also discuss how the fiber arts are still often seen as “women’s work.” For you, what is the emotional impact of using an often-feminized medium? In what ways do the materials and structures you work with limit or expand the possibilities of a project?
SP: All materials have a physical reality and a cultural reality. When we make things with them there is always a handcraft, industrial or digital signature that we recognize. I say “we,” but that varies. One person might recognize a certain woodworking technique and another might be totally blind to it and just see the legs of a chair. Like everything we experience, the more we know about how things have come about—in other words, “get made”—the greater insight we’ll have into their meaning. I make things for people who can read those codes—the actual physics, mechanics, materials and their sources, the crafts of it—and then the visual imagery and space and object resemblances. The more you know, the more you understand the work. The most important thing about it is this: all of the knowledge I work with is public, culturally held knowledge. My point of view, my subjectivity is all in how I put those things together.
My intentions are shaped by context—a specific room, a social or political condition, something new that I have learned, and other things—like a curatorial idea put to me by someone I am working with. These things shape a whole cascade of decisions that I make. The first thing is to decide whether I am working on an existing, ongoing body of work, or starting a new one. Each decision informs the next set, and so on. I rarely have a complete idea when I start working on a project; I simply know what the next set of choices need to be made, and as I go, I’m always feeding on new ideas to inform them.
MH: In a discussion with Richard Meyer and Gio Black Peter, you talked about your piece, Mr. Slit, which was part of a 2007 group exhibition, Shared Women in Los Angeles. You mention how the piece—and the exhibition—was, “speaking up, speaking back, speaking in support of” a previous generation of feminist artists who were exhibiting concurrently in WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution at The Museum of Contemporary Art. In the fourteen years since Shared Women, how do you see your work continuing a transgenerational artistic and feminist discourse?
SP: First of all, I continue to work with textiles to sustain the idea that these are materials, just like any other, to convey ideas in sculptural forms in social/political contexts. I think of my work as the small footprint of my lifetime to sustain ideas that might have a bit of impact—simultaneously to my own time and over the course of many years.
Second, I continue to make works in other ways, in other forms and genres in order to model my own subjective “intersectionality.” We have this word to use now that describes the many subjective locations from which one person reaches out into the world. My work’s variety exhibited in Hot Mess Formalism and its catalog made public many of the different aspects of my cultural subjectivity. This is a feminist idea, and extension of the Combahee River Coalition’s original statement that “the personal is political.”
You know, dismantling the constructions of patriarchy, like misogyny and racism, are long ongoing projects that get passed from generation to generation. There’s never room for backlash or fatigue. It is really important that we stand up and say what we believe, even when it’s not popular, and try to look into ourselves to see what behaviors and speech are harmful. It doesn’t happen overnight and mistakes will happen, but the idea is constancy with tolerance and kindness for each other. So this is just a way of doing and being and thinking every day.
MH: In relation to the particular emphasis your art often places on audience interaction, in what ways does this invitation to the viewer align with your personal activism?
SP: You might say it is my activism. I’m not only framing ideas about who and how we are in the world, but also the skills required to thoughtfully observe other humans and our relationships with care. I’m asking my audience to look carefully, read the works, posit ideas and questions about meaning and how it works. I’m asking for the audience to pay attention to their own internal responses, whatever these might be. I think this is the first step to greater wisdom and greater empathy. Our need for these things is, and will always be, enormous.
MH: The exhibition page by the Portland Museum of Art for your collaboration with Carrie Moyer, Tabernacles for Trying Times considers the word “tabernacle” in its many meanings within different religious contexts. In a discussion with Moyer, you note that your current ethical framework was influenced by your upbringing in a strict Catholic household during the implementation of the second Vatican council. You also describe how, as a child, “art always felt expansive; it felt like church to me.” How does Tabernacles for Trying Times bring your and Moyer’s personal religious experiences into dialogue with the historical contexts in which they occurred?
SP: Well, I can’t speak much for Moyer, since that’s an agreement we live by. But I can say that she did not grow up with a specific religion. I think we share an idea about art and art museums providing a kind of secular “church”—a place of reverence and contemplation. Her family roots are in the Midwest and are a number of more generations in this country, so I think we come together in this idea of the “big tent,” or as she says, something like the tents of old American tent revivals in the countryside. These are places where no one is turned away. And I know we agree that this is one of the basic promises of art—everyone can participate, learn and bring their culture to this place “ art.”
MH: The exhibition page also refers to Tabernacles for Trying Times as creating, “spaces for community and dialogue,” and in your 2020 interview with BOMB Magazine, you and Moyer speak about it as, “a gathering space” reconceptualizing religious furniture within a context mirroring your own living and working spaces. How do conversations held in spaces that bring together the sacred and the everyday, the personal and the communal, the religious and the secular, create opportunities for cultural fluency?
SP: Big question! I will give you a simple answer: If you pay very close attention to the world around you—immediately around you. You make sure you don’t get lost in your own head. It’s all there—at once. It’s a kind of civil animism: everything is there to capture your imagination and to spark your curiosity. If we simply observe, without opinions getting in the way, we enter a long wonderful path of observation, description and then seeking many texts, objects, events already in the world that will offer the knowledge needed to understand. Understanding is way, way better than having an opinion.
MH: You describe in an interview with Benjamin Gillespie for the Archives of American Art’s Pandemic Oral History Project how your creative outlook has changed during the pandemic. You note that “knitting and crocheting something for a huge installation takes months and months of nonstop working” but you no longer have an “incessant desire” to push yourself in that way. How has your approach to working changed during the past year in regard to large-scale projects, and the relationship between time and productivity in your creative practice?
SP: Simply, I think I just really am able to take the time to do more research, more planning, and take more time to do each project. I want to really immerse in each work and not juggle so many things at once. This may also be about the timing of the lockdown and my age. I feel like the years of “hustle” are over. Hard work is a different thing now, and I am learning on a lot of experience. I see the role of ego in the choice of being an artist more clearly now, and I see that is a great source of the “incessant desire.” Now I’m really wanting an increasingly complex conversation to be in and around the work itself. Sometimes I think the work will be writing or speaking more and not making things. And more and more, like this new American Bardo series, making things will invite learning more history and reading from broader philosophies and religious texts and more from the sciences.
MH: Artists have recently been vocal on the financial, emotional, and creative strain caused by the pandemic. How are you able to stay motivated when you start to feel stuck in a creative block while working on projects? What is some advice you can then share with other artists that are feeling stuck as well?
SP: I don’t really believe in creative blocks. I think they are an invention that describes a really narrow view of what an artist is. I think we—as humans—need different kinds of activity in our lives as thinkers, makers, and citizens. If we are not actively involved in making something, we are feeding our brains—or hearts—finding new ways to be in the world that is essential to the moment or the era. I didn’t make much during 2020, but I read a lot, took in tons of new information. I thought a lot about the value of art in its most rudimentary state, learned about my whiteness, revisited my responsibilities as a citizen, and got in touch with many more people via Zoom and FaceTime than ever. Nothing was blocked, it’s just that other things seemed more urgent. It’s a myth that artists need to be making stuff 24/7, that’s only a function of being in a marketplace with the work. Sometimes it’s just as important to do other things.
My advice is do what feels most urgent to you no matter what it is. It’s not just a key to true use of all of your focus (or lack of it), but it’s a way to know that the work really needs to exist. Of course, this is after you have acquired both a strong work ethic and a strong play ethic. I think we all know what the first one is, but the play ethic is critically important to find new ideas—it’s a mix of physical play of your medium in an open, no judgement, state of mind while quietly naming what you are doing with stuff at the time. It’s a kind of active mediation. It’s a wonderful way to find out how your creative brain works. You have to be okay with doing to find intentions, rather than doing to execute intentions. I think that’s the difference between great art and good art.
MH: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
SP: Twenty years ago, I would literally walk randomly through the city. I would take the subway to a little-known stop—get out and walk a stepped zigzag through the streets of Manhattan until I got to an area I recognized and find a train or bus back home. We lived in the East Village and the island got remapped with that as my center.
This past year, however, the wandering was much more sedentary and Covid-related. In the beginning, I would spend hours playing geometrically inspired phone games and let my mind be absorbed by the pattern-finding challenge. Then I got Covid. After that, the wandering was completely mental, imaginary, associative, and most often at that time of day when the Covid- exhaustion would pull me towards sleep. I’ve always found that pre-sleep mental state so completely luxurious. The whole world opens up and the mix of active imagery and bursts of problem-solving is so powerfully strung out in spacetime. After a few months of that, it’s really hard to tell if you’ve left the apartment or not.