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Penny Sisto at 80

February 3 – April 9, 2022

The Carnegie Center for Art & History is pleased to present Penny Sisto at 80, an exhibition of recent works by the venerated New Albany fiber artist. This will be the 80-year-old Sisto’s eighth exhibition at CCAH. The works seen here reveal a return of the artist’s focus to well-loved subjects from her decades-long career as an artist and midwife: powerful women, mothers with children, Goddesses and other spiritual figures—all assembled from scraps of fabric, and adorned with her signature diamond-like sewn details. 

Join us for the Opening Reception with music by the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Quartet on March 31 from 6-8 p.m. In order to limit capacity in our galleries during the Covid-19 public health crisis, we are requiring attendees to register in advance. A members-only reception with an artist-guided tour of the exhibition will take place at 5-6 p.m., and registration is also required.

Register to Attend the Opening Reception

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.

Read a Timeline of Penny Sisto’s Life

Photo: Ben Newkirk of Uproar Films for the Carnegie Center for Art & History

Artist Statement

These quilts bear witness to the power of Hope. In a year of isolation from the touch, sound and smell of my beloved family and friends … in a year of concern for their safety, we all somehow pulled through, sound in Mind and Body.

It was, for us, a year that brought a deep soul-searching about who we were, and about what matters most to us as a family.

The familiar touch and smell of the fabrics was soothing … the online reactions of my beloveds to what I was producing was reassuring … and the sight of their faces seen virtually was the highlight of every day.

This group of quilts … part of a year’s work, reads like a diary.

Lily in a Black Hat was made the day granddaughter Lily waved and blew kisses from across our driveway…

Merton was made after a virtual visit from Becki  … the large Jesus quilt was a song of happiness after we all ate a picnic lunch together outside down at the Mount on a blessedly warm and windy afternoon.

A year that could have, and sometimes did, bring tragedy, also gave me the time to put down on fabric the emotions of every single day of that long separation.

It brought Sense to the senselessness, and order to the chaos of never knowing.

Now, when I look at this series, I feel only gratitude. Gratitude and a faith in putting one foot in front of the other, one stitch in front of another, even into Infinity.

About the Artist

Penny Sisto is an internationally recognized artist who has exhibited throughout the United States and abroad. International presentations of her work include the exhibition of a grouping of Holocaust quilts at the Gatehouse of Auschwitz, and a selection of her slavery series quilts displayed at the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds, England, in 2008. She has won numerous awards and honors for her artwork and has been the subject of two public television programs. An advocate for social justice and peace, she is known for the difficult subjects, such as AIDS, poverty and racism, that she addresses in her works.

Born in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland, Sisto began learning how to sew at age three. As an adult, she worked for the British Ministry of Overseas Development, utilizing her skills as a midwife to aid in health clinics for the Maasai, LuBukusu and Kikuyu tribes of East Africa. Her time in Africa inspired her to combine the quilting, embroidery and appliqué techniques she learned from her grandmother with the beading and collage methods of her African friends, resulting in the distinctive style seen in her work today.

Penny Sisto has received many commissions for quilts, including four works at the Abbey of Gethsemane, where a 28×9’ quilt entitled Risen Christ hangs at each Easter season and for funeral services. Some of the other collections containing Sisto’s works include: Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Loretto, Thomas Merton International Studies Center, Spalding University, Kennedy Family and the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. Selected grants that Penny Sisto has received include: Kentucky Foundation for Women, Indiana Arts Commission, Master Fellowship and New Directions and Southern Arts. In 1993, she was awarded a Baha’i Peace Award for Arts Promoting World Peace because of her promotion of peace and justice through her work.

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