Conversation: Sheila Pepe and Elif Gül Tirben

I met Sheila Pepe at Pasaj’s booth in the initiatives section of the Art International Fair in Istanbul. Pepe had transformed the booth into a comfortable, welcoming space by covering up the different surfaces with colorful crochets. Looking through these small crochet islands, I had an open, living room kind of conversation with Pepe, away from the formality of the art fair. We talked about her crochet and knit drawings in space, the Common Sense series in which these drawings are opened up to the viewers’ intervention and Yo Mama, where knots added to the work reflect the contributing women’s family histories. Common Sense series, which started in a living room in Texas and moved to a museum space in Tblisi, is the viewer undoing Pepe’s work from one end and re-knitting them, constantly transforming the available form. The series is simultaneously shaped an experiment in which Pepe tests the limits of opening up her practice to the viewers’ intervention. Yo Mama, the artist and her friends knitting according to a set of rules the names of matrons in their family, placing a giant vagina in the middle, is the product of the period in which the artist re-thought her relationship with feminist art.—Elif Gül Tirben

Elif Gül Tirben with Sheila Pepe
Elif Gül Tirben with Sheila Pepe. Photo by Zeynep Okyay.

Elif Gül Tirben: I would like to mainly talk about your temporary installations that are open to audience participation such as the Common Sense series. Could you tell us about how the series started?

Sheila Pepe: Most of the work I made before 2009 was simply like big drawings in space with crocheting to make something architectural, something dependent on the institution but also infiltrating the institution.  Then my friend and my colleague Elizabeth Dunbar in Texas invited me to Testsite, run at the time by Laurence Miller. The space was a home, so suddenly I had this new problem of bringing the material back in the domestic space. I also had to acknowledge that the feminist idea of art that had become very prominent through the WACK exhibition curated but Cornelia Butler in 2007. It included work made in the 1970s by American artists, such as Faith Wilding who is like my predecessor.  A general awareness of Feminist Art histories was becoming more and more apparent. So I decided to make a work that was temporary like everything else I made, but that was not controlled by me in the end, but by the audience. The audience would use it for something much more like the original material intention, which is craft, knitting, and fiber work for personal use, for family use.

Sheila Pepe, Audience participation. “Common Sense,” 2009, Testsite/Fluent-Colab, Austin, TX

EGT: This is the work I saw on your web site where a family sit on a couch and knit all together in a living room, right?

SP: They are not a family but different people who know each other. They teach each other how to knit, or make things for themselves.

EGT: How did the project move to Tbilisi, Georgia where you collaborated with some local craftswomen?

SP: Lydia Mathews asked if I would take that project to Tbilisi and I said sure. It was a crazy trip and it was such a different environment. I was completely jet-lagged and I had to put the piece up very quickly. Lydia had arranged for this local craftswomen who were very accomplished to come and use the space and the materials.

EGT: How did this affect your work?

SP: It was probably, besides Texas, the most successful use of the space and use of the piece in public space because people knew the craftswomen and the craftswomen kind of performed this service for my work and then showed other people who came to the exhibition how to be with the work. Then the most amazing thing happened I’ve never seen anywhere else; mothers teaching little boys; a young couple, maybe on a date, knitting.  Everybody participated. All of the gender ideas of the work when looked from an American perspective were completely undone.  It seemed like everybody was up for it. I felt like they used the materials and then the materials were taken down and brought to the workshop where the women worked.  I felt like the materials got used and they produced a value. It’s not always like that.

Sheila Pepe, Audience participation. “Common Sense Tbilisi,” 2010, Included in Chime In, Artisterium 3, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

EGT: How does others’ participation change your work aesthetically? Do they continue with what you started? How do they participate?

SP: Oh this is an important fact—the whole work is constructed so that when you pull on a thread it completely dismantles, it completely takes apart what I’ve made. So the idea is that I make the installation and the participants erase my work and turn it into their work.

EGT: So it is kind of like erasing a drawing and then redrawing it.

SP: Yes. Ideally when the exhibition is over it is completely naked.

EGT: What about your piece in Las Vegas called Yo Mama. What does the title imply?

SP: It is a NY street talk. I think I stole it from African American lingo. It is like “your mother” but also a negative joke, which is meant in good faith with each other. It is men who usually trade it. It is also like “hello mum.” It has many different meanings.

EGT: What was your friends’ contribution to this work?

SP: I asked my friends to use a count stich method. One letter in the alphabet is given a numerical equal so they cast on.  My last name is Pepe so I count on that number and that follows the initials, my mother’s initials with her maiden name, my grandmother…so you follow your heritage all the way back.

Pepe_YoMama2Sheila Pepe, Yo Mama, 2009, Dust Gallery, Las Vegas, NV.,the silver knitting on the foreground is by Martha Cedarholm

EGT: Is that a method of translation?

SP: Translation but also rule-making that I take from Sol Lewitt—a rule given for making of an artwork. The translation is so that if your first name is Ann and your second name is Zimmerman, you can cast on one but then you have to figure out a way to make twenty-six rows because Zimmermann is the last letter in the alphabet. So you are counting stitches and rows and you are recording your matron in your history. So my name is Sheila Pepe, my mothers name is Josephine Nigro, her mother’s name is Theresa DelDuca and that’s as far as I know. Then I have to repeat. My friend Martha Cederholm’s family has done genealogy and she knew, maybe, 20 generations. So every shape was different all the way back.

EGT: What about the enormous vagina at the center of the work?

SP: The question of the work was to honor the mothers but also to ask what happens when you bring a very big fluffy vagina to Las Vegas, which is like the American capital of gambling and also a place where women is subjugated in a very particular way. It’s a very sexist kind of culture. It is a very sex-positive culture but very prescribed, like there is only one kind of sexuality. So, when I showed the work, most people were shocked in a place I thought no one could be shocked. But conversations were fabulous, a lot of women were telling me their feminist stories.

Pepe_Sheila+VanessaSheila Pepe, Yo Mama, 2009, Sheila Pepe (right) and Vanessa Chow

EGT: How do you start your work?  Do you make sketches on paper first or go to the exhibition space?

SP: I get the jpegs of a space, do a site-visit if there is a budget. Then I get a floor plan and I do scribble drawings on the floor, almost like choreography, I am moving through space as like a practice and then when I arrive I know the space in some ways. Then I begin to work through it by putting the first marks on the wall, which are the connection points. Then I draw with the single line and then draw more lines: lines on space with strings, shoelaces and rope.

EGT: So first you have a geometric spatial division.

SP: Yes. Sometimes I have the idea of a psychological space or a more aestheticized space. Sometimes it is a tent, or a more architectural space. Sometimes it is a space to play. But always, there is this kind of modernist aesthetic of drawing from the mid-century New York modernist kind of idea.

I also make conversations with the curator, I make conversations with the group, if it is a group show, in order to take something I already do and change it.  I try to ask myself new questions and ask maybe people who enter the space same questions.

EGT: What was the most challenging project you have made in public space or maybe a public project that didn’t work as it was planned?

SP: They were all challenging in different ways. One is the Common Sense project in Boston, at Carroll & Sons.  The installation was beautiful  but because it was in a commercial gallery, not so many people would touch it at all. When we had a closing party, it was the only time everyone came and made something of the work. I think it was too formal and the space was a space for different purpose.  I was being too demanding of the audience in the gallery. To simply invite people to stay, that’s just enough sometimes.

The other very challenging day was when I did the drawing project in New York. It was part of a big public program put on by the Drawing Center. It really opened my process to everyone. It was all good, but it was a very hard day.

Sheila Pepe, “Bus Lines,” part of “The Big Draw,” 2007, World Financial Center, New York, NY.

EGT: Is it because it was difficult to control everybody?

SP: Part of the idea was I would lose control. Because my works are ephemeral and temporary, I thought I was so good at losing control. But in fact, I was never losing control. I was saying when the work would come down and that it would be destroyed. Beyond my making and destroying I was very controlling of the entire thing. It was my direction. my psyche, and I retained the role of the individual artist.

EGT: How did you feel during the public drawing project? Did you feel like someone was intervening in your area?

SP: No, the new risk was completely losing control. You say you lose control but not as much as you could. Then you give over to this process and make it allowed to be chaotic.

EGT: Does this also mean your disappearance?

SP: Yes it does. There were many 12-year-old boys throwing yarn at us. My helpers,  former students and friends, all tried to make sense of this thing. I could give maybe some directions. I was working on little parts and pieces too. It was beautiful in a strange way; it was fun to make a work at that site had become since 9/11. It was meaningful to me and to the participants, but then I realize that making myself and my work disappear is not exactly a good idea. (laughs).

EGT: Do you have an impossible dream? Like for instance knitting towards the moon, I don’t know…

SP: What I dream about sounds extremely simple and almost completely old fashioned. It’s really to have a way of being an artist that allows for making some things for the market place and some things just for right now experience that will also go away. Also to have conversations, to do all this stuff in great complexity without rules about what my brand is.

EGT: But don’t you feel like you are already doing it?

SP: It’s a matter of achieving balance so it’s a life long trip, as my friends at Pasaj said “sustainability”—also having balance in your life.

EGT: What kind of a balance are you talking about?

SP: When I am teaching I am really teaching; when I am talking I am really talking; when I am making things, I am really making things. So it is difficult to stay focused and to work slowly enough in our lives to enjoy it; to use all the technology we have for our benefit but not for our destruction and still stay present. It’s so difficult but it’s the most important thing. Looking back even as a child, it was the reason why I wanted to make things—because you are there.

EGT: For me knitting is very difficult, I can’t focus, I forget what I am doing and my hands sweat a lot.

SP: Well, my hands sweat a lot too sometimes but you get a fan. (laughs)

EGT: True.

SP: My technique is not so great, on purpose. Technique gets better in time and then I start learning something new.

EGT: Is it like meditation for you as well?

SP: I think the first thing I learned as a child was ironing my father’s handkerchiefs and then when I used to work with my father we used shovel the snow on the driveway. I love that kind of task where it’s simple, repetitive but also you had to come up with a small strategy and you would try more ways to make it slightly better or slightly different. All these tiny variations that can happen with one form, this is very attractive to me.

EGT: You inherited knitting and crocheting from your mother and shoelaces come from your father and your grandfather who owned a shoe company. How does this personal legacy shape your work and your identity?

SP: One of the big installations I made in New York was called “Josephine” after my mother and it was like a portrait of her. It is definitely like honoring the crafts of the mothers. But, there is also a kind of playfulness about it; I would perform in the installation of the works and the monumental scale of the works are part of my identity that could not be performed with my family which is the more “butch” side, the more masculine side of my identity. Sometimes I am up on a scissor lift like 30 feet in the air, crocheting and thinking about all these things, crocheting with men’s shoelaces, big fat black rubber bands—something very muscular or building architecture—being physical in this funny way. So, there is this latent kind of edge inside of some of the works, especially when they are all black and all men’s shoelaces, rubber bands and hardware on the wall. Sometimes they look like very large lace lingerie, sometimes looks a little bit S&M. These things are kind of packed inside.

I am repurposing my mother’s skills and shoelaces are from my father’s side, that’s the part I retain. All of the other expressions, aesthetic and gendered expressions, these are not so much in keeping with my origin, these are mine and the life I built as an adult.

Sheila Pepe is an artist and educator. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York where she currently teaches at Pratt Institute. An archive of her works can be found at, where updates regarding new events and works will be posted in the coming month. Pepe is currently showing work in Brooklyn at  COME TOGETHER: SANDY and has just curated Congregation which runs until December 1 at 106 GREEN a space run for artists by artists Ridley Howard and Mitchell Wright.

Elif Gül Tirben is an arts writer and curator based in Istanbul. She holds a BA in International Relations from Middle East Technical University, an MA in Sociology from the same university and an MA in Visual Arts Theory from Sabanci University. Her interests are contemporary art and sociology of culture. She is one of the three editors of m-est.