Home, sweet home: Immigrant Penny Sisto illuminates the struggle through her quilts

Aug 7, 2007 at 4:51 pm

“Arrival” by Penny Sisto
“Arrival” by Penny Sisto
In this time of renewed debate over America’s immigration policy, viewing the new series of art quilts by Penny Sisto should be mandatory before forming and sharing an opinion. They contain visual history and political and social lessons, all delivered with a hefty dose of empathy. To drive home the point further, the exhibition labels are in both English and Spanish.

Gleaned from her own experience as an immigrant (she was born in Scotland’s Orkney Islands), a quote by Sisto opens the show and was sewn into a quilt by fellow textile artist Kathleen Loomis: “Unless we be Native American or Mexican in some areas of the west and southwest, we are all of us immigrants in this vast land. We, with our rich heritages and dialects, have woven the bright noisy quilt that is America.”

Sisto is a gifted storyteller — her voice and words translate beautifully through fiber. The high level of technical skills evident in her nontraditional quilts combines embroidery, appliqué, beading and collage. She paints or draws, then overstitches the faces of her immigrants in these 37 quilts. Her backgrounds are like stage sets that colorfully frame the figures.

It all starts with an “Arrival.” An immigrant family, smiling and full of hope, has reached its destination with as many belongings as they can carry. They must rely on their dreams, because they are likely to encounter hatred and fear.

That fear is palpable in “Water-Bottles.” In one of her most poignant works, Sisto illustrates how hateful anger can result in death. Those who want to stop the crossings into America have destroyed the hidden water supply. As a young man dies of thirst, his family surrounds him, posed in a “Pieta” format, made familiar by Michelangelo’s iconic work of Jesus and Madonna. The bright yellow background shows plastic water bottles broken and destroyed.

Once upon a time, the phrase “No Irish Need Apply” was often printed in newspapers and on window cards. In this quilt by the same name, an Irish family, with the women in the center holding a newspaper ad, sadly surveys the unseen hostile environment. Two shadowy faces in the upper left perhaps represent loved ones back in Ireland.

The Welsh, some of my own ancestors, came to eastern Kentucky to familiar territory, the coalmines. “Coal,” composed in a limited palette of dark green to black, features the face of a miner as dark as the coal dust would actually make it.

Sisto sums up her exhibition with the ceiling-to-floor quilt “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” It is arranged like an altar, complete with candles and a kneeling bench. The dark-skinned, blue-robed Madonna is “one of all the world’s most beloved religious icons,” she explains in her artist statement. “Take a quiet moment to give thanks to those who went before us. To those to whom we owe this freedom we have.”

Additional works by Sisto are on display at another New Albany location, The Gallery on Pearl, in the White House Centre at 222 Pearl St. (they will remain there until sold). The 11 quilts are from her previous series on mythical and spiritual subjects, such as “Fox Fire,” of American Indian Deer Dancers.

The Carnegie and The Gallery on Pearl are part of a new program called “Downtown Saturday.” More than 30 galleries, shops and restaurants in New Albany will be open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on the first Saturday of each month. The next “Downtown Saturday” is Sept. 1.
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‘Yearning to Be Free: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’
Through Sept. 15
Carnegie Center for Art & History
201 E. Spring St., New Albany
(812) 944-7336
Free; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tue.-Sat.)

Accompanying free multicultural events:
• Family Fun Workshop, Carnegie Center, Saturday, Aug. 11, 10 a.m.-noon (reservations suggested).
• “World on the Square,” downtown Corydon, Ind., Saturday, Aug. 11, 4-8 p.m.
• “World of Flavor BBQ and Music Fest,” New Albany Amphitheater, Saturday, Aug. 18, 5 p.m. (Call Develop New Albany at 812-941-0018 for more details.)
• National City Financial Literacy Program, Carnegie Center, Saturday, Aug. 25, 1-4 p.m.
• “World Fest,” Louisville’s Waterfront, Friday, Aug. 31-Saturday, Sept. 1, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
• Family Fun Workshop, New Albany-Floyd County Library Children’s Dept., Saturday, Sept. 8, 10 a.m.-noon (reservations suggested).
• “Fiesta Latina,” St. Mary’s Church, Eighth and Spring streets, New Albany, Saturday, Sept. 15, 6:30-11 p.m.