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A Timeline of Penny Sisto’s Life

“When you’re old, you expect pain to remind you to die to make room for a younger one” 

 – Penny Sisto 

(from Louisville Magazine article “In the Fullness of Time,” by Arielle Christian 2018)

2022 – Eighth solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Penny Sisto at 80. From the artist’s written statement accompanying the exhibition:

  •  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.” 

2018 – Seventh solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled The Sixties – Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out: New Work by Penny Sisto

2014 – Sixth solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Earth Tones: Art Quilts by Penny Sisto. From the artist’s written statement accompanying Earth Tones:

  •  “Memories are made of sound and smell, early hymns and lullabies to soothe us, drums to rock us to the very soul. Skirling bagpipes and fiddles always meant a gathering where I grew up. Our chairs were pushed aside; we let go of our daily chores and tired hands were joined in dance.”

2011 – Fifth solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Heartbeats: Art Quilts by Penny Sisto. From the artist’s written statement accompanying Heartbeats:

  •  “I want to be a witness for truth . . . and in my belief system, the truth is this . . . we live on stolen land. And Heartbeats is my stitched journey into this belief. It is a journey into opposites . . . starting with the contrast between the sharpness of my needles, and the softness of the cloth. Between the ache of honoring the past, and journeying into hope for a healing future.

2009 – Fourth solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Faces of Faith: The Search for the Divine. From the Faces of Faith exhibition catalogue essay by Peter Morrin: 

  • “To overcome racial, ideological, religious and imperialist stereotypes, to affirm the belief system of others, Sisto has adopted some of the tools and attitudes of a distinctly non-western mindset, that of showmanship. Like shamans in many cultures, she makes work that aspires to be an intermediary between the physical and spiritual worlds. Like shamans, she is a healer, although her goal is not to improve the health of an individual, but Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world). 
  • I have so much to say, I’m running out of time” –  Penny Sisto, from Woman of the Cloth 1997

2007 – Third solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Yearning to Be Free: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
2006 – Second solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Slavery Stories: Threads of Strength and Fortitude 

  • “There seems so little to say or do, and so I honor their Being by repeating their names like a Mantra and whispering to them as I work..they Matter..every one of them..and the hole they left behind is Hallowed Ground.” – Penny Sisto, excerpted from an entry on her Facebook page

2004 – First exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Penny Sisto: Recent Works 

  • “I think in thread . . . I fold into myself silently, like Fabric . . . and then I try to show you what is within me. No filters, no boundaries . . . just my mind to yours.” – Penny Sisto, excerpted from an entry on her Facebook page

1997 – Documentary film, Woman of the Cloth: Fabric Artist Penny Sisto aired on PBS, produced and directed by Caroline Nellis 

  • “I’ve birthed 2,500 babies. Each of them came out of the sea.” –  Penny Sisto, from Woman of the Cloth 1997

1993 – Attended a Yom HaShoah program at Louisville’s Adath Jeshuran Congregation and was so moved by the experience that she created a Holocaust remembrance piece entitled “Dancing in the Dark.” She would go on to create a series of Holocaust remembrance quilts that were exhibited at the Auschwitz Gatehouse.

  • “I cry through my fingers.” Penny Sisto, from Woman of the Cloth 1997

1989 – Due to a withdrawal of support for small farms during the Reagan administration, Sisto and her husband Richard were forced to sell their dairy farm in Kentucky. With the help of their friends at Gethsemani Monastery, they learned about a property several hours north in the woods bordering Mt. St. Francis Monastery in Floyds Knobs, Indiana. They moved and built a cabin that includes a work studio for Penny, a separate music building for Richard, and eventually a tipi, sweat lodge and yurt.  Now that her time is not consumed with farming duties, she is able to create art full time. 

  • “I work daily to the echoing sounds of [Richard’s] vibes, piano and drums drifting through the windows and mingling with the wind in the trees and the foxes’ bark.” – Excerpted from Penny Sisto’s artist statement from Earth Tones: Art Quilts by Penny

1979 – After years of suffering from violent abuse at the hands of her husband (including violence against her own children, and the loss of a full-term pregnancy) she flees California to join Richard Sisto in New Haven, Kentucky. They build a small dairy farm on his property near the Abbey of Gethsemani Monastery where they raise cows, chickens, hay and tobacco using only horse-drawn equipment. To earn income or to barter for goods and tuition for the children at the nearby Catholic schools, she makes 28-foot-tall quilt tapestries for local churches, as well as cowls (monk robes with hoods) for the neighboring monastery. While she winds down her midwifery, over the years she still is able to deliver all but one of her 30+ grandchildren.

1972-78 – Has four children, sons Ramana (Mike), Haaldie (Hal) and Romali (deceased) and a daughter Bethany at Ananda Village in California. With so many children, she has a need for milk, cheese and butter. She buys several cows and runs a small dairy operation, selling milk and butter and cream, and feeding her family with the rest. Expands her health care to include animals in need – both domestic and wild/rehab.  The hawks, wolves, coyotes, pumas and other animals she treats become images in her artworks. 

1971 – Drives across the country with her family in a VW bus to live in Ananda Village, a spiritual community in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. The commune was remote and the nearest hospital was an hour’s drive away. At Ananda, she set up a free health clinic in her home, where she delivered babies and provided basic medical care to the logging industry workers and anyone with a medical emergency. Here she meets meditation teacher and jazz musician Richard Sisto. She is midwife to his two children Meadow and Jeremy, who will later become her own stepchildren. 

  • “Birth is a future and a past, and a death. Pregnancy is a planet–and it dies at birth.”  – Penny Sisto, in conversation with Carnegie Center curator, 2021

1970 – Moves with her husband to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked as a janitor at an Armenian church near Harvard Square. She had her daughter Tulsi prematurely, and for six weeks had to walk miles and take buses across the city to visit the baby in the NICU. As friends who were Vietnam veterans returned from war, she internalized their experiences and what they had seen, reflecting that in future work. In the city, she was active in peace marches and protests, often taking her children with her.

1967 – Joins the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. Moves to a Maasai village in Kenya as a volunteer midwife for the British Ministry of Overseas Development in Africa. Her three oldest children were with her. Made art pieces that were sold to a local hotel and learned about Maasai lifestyle, dress and practices, which are often reflected in her work in later years.  Witnessed female circumcision first-hand and became a strong advocate against the practice. During her time in Kenya she met and married the father of her younger children, an American working for the Peace Corps. 

  • “Sometimes I can’t wait for my hand to catch up with my heart . . . The margins of your being slip and you become someone else.” – Penny Sisto, quoted from the Faces of Faith exhibition catalogue essay by Peter Morrin.

1964-67– Moves in with her partner and has two children with him, first son Jon and second daughter Becki. Worked at various jobs. Spent non-work hours with the children, walking through the town and soaking up architecture, nature, and the art around her. Those bleak images of hills and stained glass windows appear in later works. Often, as is the case in many low income households over the centuries, her art was channeled into making clothes for herself and her children, because she was unable to buy those new.

  • I’m trying to stitch it all back together . . . I’m not a ‘real good’ anything, but I know how to put the pieces together . . . I know who’s there.” – Penny Sisto, quoted from the Faces of Faith exhibition catalogue essay by Peter Morrin.

1961 – Moves to Edinburgh at age 19, pregnant with her first child Anna. Worked in a clothing factory, where she was fired for “sloppy sewing.” She spoke primarily Gaelic at the time and learned English as a second language. She became a voracious reader and acquired a lifelong habit of continual learning.

1957 – Facilitates the delivery of a birth for the first time, at age 16. Had learned  midwifery and medical care basics from her grandfather, who was the local physician. Over the course of her life, she would go on to assist in the births of thousands of babies, on three continents.

1953– Finishes formal education after completion of eighth grade. 

  • “My life was lived with few boundaries. If I milked and did my farm chores I was unsupervised, wild. I wore feathers in my hair, went to school only if forced, could edge so close to the seals and puffins that they learned to ignore me, stayed out all the light-filled nights of midsummer–that far north you can read a book at midnight outside.” – From interview with Keith Waits in LVA’s Artebella, 2018

1948 – Sews her first art quilt with scraps of fabric stolen from her grandmother at age 7 (exhibited currently in the Sally Newkirk Gallery, around the corner). 

  • “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.” – Penny Sisto, from interview with Karoda (Karen R. Davis) in Seamless Skin, 2010

1941 – Penny Sisto is born foot-first on the couch as Annie Stewart, on the northernmost Orkney Island, North Ronaldsay, Scotland, in a 400-year-old stone house. She is nicknamed “Penny.” Her relatives farm sheep and cows and run the Loch Ness Inn for tourists. She spends her childhood suffering from traumatic sexual and physical abuse by her grandfather. She learns to sew from her grandmother. Sisto was often sick as a child, and attempted suicide many times. 

  • “Always fabric we’re swaddled in, birth to death” – Penny Sisto, from Woman of the Cloth 1997

Thank you to Anna Whites for the assistance in putting together this timeline. 

Carnegie Center for Art & History, 2022

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