Inspiration from Penny Sisto

Oh my! Did I tell you that I was oh, so inspired after not only seeing Penny’s lovely fiber art Friday, but spending some time with her at the Artisan Center in Corydon, Indiana? Well, I sure was.

I met Penny many years ago through my friend Barb. She wrote several articles for magazines about Penny and purchased one of her lovely wall hangings back then.

Just a little about Penny – She was born in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland and began sewing at the age of 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 in East Africa. Her style is a combination of the quilting, embroidery, and applique techniques she learned from her grandmother with the beading and collage methods of her African friends.

Penny has won numerous awards and has been the subject of two PBS documentaries. She is known for difficult subjects including AIDS, poverty and racism that she addresses in her works, as she advocates for social justice and peace.  For more information on Penny, check out her website HERE.

This exhibit at the Artisan Center was a display of her new prayer flags.

Penny Sisto and Barb in front of Mother Earth
Penny Sisto and Barbara Stahura in front of Mother Earth

To start our visit, I had to get a picture of Penny with Barb in front of my favorite in the show, Mother Earth. Penny took us around to each piece describing the symbolism, where the fabric came from, and on some pieces, her actual process.

Closeup of Mother Earth
Closeup of Mother Earth

Penny does an incredible job with eyes. All of her pieces seemed to follow me around the room.

Here are just a few of her quilts in this exhibit. Unfortunately, I did not get names of all of them.

Penny Sisto prayer flag

Penny Sisto's Lady of Guadalupe
Penny’s Lady of Guadalupe

Penny Sisto wall hanging

Penny Sisto Art quilt

Penny Sisto with one of her quilts
Penny pointing out a detail on one of her works of art.

Penny Sisto Prayer Flag

Penny Sisto Prayer Flag

Penny Sisto's Mary and the Baby Jesus
Penny’s Mother Mary and the Baby Jesus

It was so interesting hearing about her process. Penny doesn’t sketch out her designs. She comes up with an idea and then just starts working on it. For the smaller pieces, it takes her 3 – 4 days. She rises early and works until 10 pm. I’m still amazed she can complete even one of the small pieces in that time. In the past she stitched all by hand. Now she uses the sewing machine for the majority of her stitches.

She uses a variety of fabrics, many of them clothing given to her by friends. Nothing is safe from Penny’s scissors. For the antlers on Mother Earth, Penny persuaded a guy wearing the t-shirt to sell it to her.  An apron her son gave her as a present is the skirt on one of her pieces. She also dyes some of her fabric. How can she cut up the lovely fabrics that she’s woven into her quilts? Her answer,  “It’s just fabric.”  She shared some of the products she uses including Procion dyes (fiber reactive dyes), Wonder Under, fabric paint, felt, and more. She even walked us through her steps of putting Mother Earth together. I felt like I was in class and really should have been taking notes!

What I love about Penny besides her talent, is her attitude and willingness to share her knowledge.  She is one of the most fearless artist I’ve met – not only with the subjects she tackles, but her ability to use all of those different fabrics and techniques to complete her quilts. If it doesn’t work, she just keeps pushing until it does. She is also approachable, humble, and a genuine spirit.

I asked her if she was going to take some time off now to rest after this exhibit. “No, I don’t have time to do that.” As one of us who is in the autumn of our years, she feels like she needs to create at much as she can now. Oh, how I relate to that.

I have a face that I made over 20 years ago in a quilt class that I never finished. Maybe I need to dig her out and see if I can push against that fear and finish her. Penny, thanks for the inspiration! I hope she’s inspired you too.