Davis: Describe your childhood as it relates to your art making and creativity? What were your influences? And how do you think growing up in the Orkney Islands influenced you as an artist? How did living in East Africa influence you as an artist? And likewise for coming to the United States.
Sisto: Our wee croft (farm) was at first glance an ‘art-free zone'...that is until you looked carefully at our layers of warm clothing...each one made of hand-woven fabric, spun from yarn from our flock of sheep. Each skirt or jacket was carefully pieced and sewn by hand from second hand clothes bought or traded for at the Market where we sold our butter, eggs and cheeses.
Even my knee-high stockings were hand-knitted using the same pattern I still knit socks with on four needles. Thick those socks were, and scratchy, but warm and since the yarn was filled with lanolin, they were shower and sea-proof!
I drew, always I drew...drew the faces of my family and animals...drew the wild seas and skies covered in storm clouds...but, unlike children here, I didn’t own colored pencils nor paints, but drew in an old biscuit (cookie) tin lid filled with dry and sifted sand, or drew with a sharp stone on a slate-board. This means of mark-making taught me the im-permanance of all things, which has proved a valuable life-lesson.
My first taste of actual painting came at age eleven. A German tourist who came to paint the myriad of sea-birds for which our island (North Ronaldshay) was famous. He saw me drawing in the hard sand-pan left by a departing tide and when he left for home, he dropped off his paints, canvases and brushes on our doorstep. I used those paints, watering them down for a year until the marks they left were barely discernable!
East Africa was an artistic awakening. The earth was bright red and ochre with a strong perfume. All my life this color had been my favourite. I felt that my whole life had pointed me towards Africa.
The plane from England stopped first in Uganda where I got off, smelled the air, bent and knelt on the red earth and wept for joy. I was finally in a world filled with warmth, color, bright sun...that ochre earth is where my heart began to come alive.
That was the first place where I was greeted with open arms. The Maasai women wore plaids and beads of every hue. They, like myself, saved every cast off scrap be it of plastic, tin or fabric and re-made it into Art. They were walking Altars of beauty and gratitude.
Living Water, Faces of Faith Series, 2009
Davis: What are some of your memories growing up with engaging art? When did the interest become an engaging one?
Sisto: My first experience of Art tugging at me was when I saw my grandmother’s hair which was bright auburn, reflecting like a fiery halo around her in the sunlight beaming through a window. I tried to draw it in the ash on the hearth. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t pulled by some inner need to scratch down the sights and feelings of my world.
Davis: What led you to your choice of medium(s)? And what/who were your influences in those mediums? And how do they relate one to another, if so? What other mediums have you attempted?
Sisto: Fabric was all that was readily available to me as color. We saved every scrap of cast-off yarn and fabric, re-working it into quilts and smaller items such as washcloths. I had little knowledge until I attended a one room school at five of the existence of Art outside of the many books in our home.
I would pour over my grandfather’s Book of Martyrs,...each gruesome detail carefully rendered in pen and ink drawings.
The first ‘real’ painting I ever saw was an old Victorian print of a seaman telling tall-tales to some enthralled children.
I have tried in my middle years to use some acrylic paints but find the colors stiff compared with fabrics.
In Kenya I made collages from colored and dried leaves of banana trees and eucalyptus leaves that turn deep reds and oranges...these were mediums used by the Maasai women to create ‘paintings’ to sell to tourists and when I came to the U.S., I adapted this technique using torn colored paper from magazines. I love this, as it is free and also is recycling, and paper is a fiber!
Collared, Slavery Series, 2006
Davis: Describe your daily art making practices. Include how you approach design and ideas.
Sisto: I awaken at about 4:30, a habit formed in my decades of dairy farming! I love this time of day as the world is still silent and I go right to the studio and begin the day’s work.
I think that I have little or no sense of design. I know what I want to put down, but I generally, fail miserably. I can ‘see’ it, see just HOW it should be, but the earthly colors seldom match up...so I dye and overlay and fabricate. Even with all of this effort I fail more than I succeed, but Art is something that goes on despite ones better judgement! HA!
Davis: Artistically speaking, what challenges do you face and how to you (plan to) overcome them?
Sisto: My biggest challenges in my work are my own lack of talent and finesse, my bad sewing and my lack of sophistication and knowledge of HOW to make Art. I have never taken the time to learn as I have needed to put in the hours every day to make enough art to live on. This is both a freeing thing and a burden. I think most artists who live by their artistic endeavors feel this. Alas, I have no plan to overcome these challenges!
Davis: Do you work in series? Or does each piece stand alone? Share your reasons for either approach.
Sisto: Oh this is such a great question! I LOVE a Series...I love giving myself the permission to delve into and live inside a group of works for an extended period of time. Now, in that series you try to strive to make each of the pieces good enough, or strong enough to stand alone.
As a pattern of Life, I THINK in ‘Series’. By that I mean that I approach life as a series of questions and curiosities. For example, I sat down outside a McDonalds (my fav eatery) with an interesting-looking young Traveller, and I asked him all about his painted jeans and his wee black dog. It became a 3 hour-long conversation about his travels and about Life in general.
That conversation led to a few days of just wandering around by myself sitting in strange places to see and feel what a life of just sitting on the ground brought into my mind. Then I made a group of quilts about sitting, just sitting.
Davis: Share the milestones that mean the most to you as an artist.
Sisto: Oh, the first milestone was my rebelling at age seven from piecing a nine-patch I had been set to sew. Instead of doing that I made my first portrait quilt of a young Tinker (Gypsy) who had come to our farm . I still have that first ‘real’ quilt.
The second milestone was when a beloved friend sculptor Ewing Fahey sought me out as she had seen a newspaper article about one of my Vietnam quilts. She walked into the milk parlor where I was doing the afternoon's milking, and in her wise and gentle way she pointed out to me that perhaps another person could milk cows, but only I could make Penny Sisto quilts!
Davis: Whether it is the intent of an artist to become an entrepreneur, artists are thrown into the role the first time someone wants to purchase something they’ve created. What advice can you share that speaks to the business side of art?
Sisto: Lordy I am the world’s WORST person to ask. I am terrible at pricing...the only time that I ever got good prices for my work was for a few years when a wonderful gallery in Santa Fe sold all that I could make. Then the woman who owned it sadly died and the person who took over Thirteen Moons Gallery told me that she was not interested in selling my quilts. So my advice is do NOT approach it as I did but educate yourself and join with other artists who can mentor you.
Davis: Some White Artists voice apprehensions about creating work that borrows from other cultures. What do you think accounts for your own abilities to reflect and speak to other cultures in your art work?
Sisto: Again, I am probably the wrong person to speak wisely about this. I think there are two pathways to becoming Universal in the depth of your Being.
One pathway is to become so wise that you are Every-one. The second path is to become so small that you become No-body.
I did not choose this second way, it was handed to me at birth. I grew up in a house with no mirror save for my grandfather’s round shaving mirror tacked to the door in the downstairs room. He was almost six foot seven and so no other person in the house could see themselves in it...so I had little idea of how I appeared, and to this day I feel uncomfortable looking in a mirror or at a reflection of myself.
I was told that I was Nobody, should not even have been born, had no place...and so it was easy to become almost invisible . There was pain in this BUT there was also immense Freedom.
If my chores were done, I could do as I pleased the rest of the time. I would vanish overnight on what I called Sunny-Mooners. I would leave as the sun rose, row away, find a wee cove or shore, play, walk and explore, greet the moon, sleep and arrive home with the new Sunrise. I never remember a question asked, and there was never a word spoken of it.
So I find that I can assimilate easily and find comfort in any place where I find myself.
Perhaps since I am Nobody, the other side of that is that I can be Anybody.
Perhaps though I am simply too stupid to realize that we are not all One.
Davis: You spoke of your recent pieces in a joint show with Ann Larson Adamek as being the most biographical series you've created to date. Describe how that series came about and what it was like for you.
Sisto: I am now 69 and two months and so am living on borrowed time! It seemed a good idea to put down some of the old Selkie stories my Gran always told so that I could look at them through a Crone’s eyes.
I admire Ann and thought that it would make a wonderful show to have her beautiful Water-colors mingle with the Selkie quilts.
I loved sewing a few of them such as ‘Skate’, which shows my big old farm boots, and ‘Rowing to School’ which has my pram-dinghy shown in it. Some of them came harder. It was strange to look back and see the journey through the guise of the Selkie stories. Perhaps the Selkie story belongs to all women, or to all persons who find themselves alone on a land that is not theirs, in a life which remains a wee bit uncomfortable.
Davis: What are your future goals and what should we be on the look out for you in 2011?
Sisto: I hope that my neck, back, eyes and fingers hold together for a few more quilts! In 2011 I’ll show again at the incredible Carnegie and it will be a show of Native American Stories.
Penny giving a gallery talk, 2006.