Madison Square Park – New York
June 26 – December 10, 2023
Bringing together groups of beginning and advanced crochet artists, artist Sheila Pepe created her first outdoor exhibition, commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which opened June 26. In My Neighbor’s Garden, Pepe twists the traditional 19th-century American urban park layout with a 21st-century temporary installation that brings color, unexpected materials and optimism to the outdoors. Pepe, a feminist and queer artist whose elaborate web-like structures recall and critique conventional women’s craft practice, uses crochet to transform contemporary sculpture. Her canopies and webs of string and lace, paracord, shoelaces, oversized sustainable rubber bands and plant materials will be attached to several six-meter-tall poles and distinguish existing physical structures in the park, including light poles. The fabric spans several paths under which park visitors can walk. Uncommon vegetables and flowering plants mingle with Pepe’s crochet, fostering interaction between the artist’s materials and the natural world. The fabric of New York’s community gardens features a wide range of unique heirloom plants. This diversity is reflected in the work, with climbing plants such as bitter melon, sour gherkin, long bean, and morning glory vine intertwining with crocheted constructions. My Neighbor’s Garden will remain on view until Dec. 10, 2023.
”My Neighbors Garden is truly rooted in the park,” said Stephanie Lucas, Director of Park Operations and Horticulture, Madison Square Park Conservancy. “Each vine, flower, fruit, and stitch reflects the whimsy of community effort and the joy of seasonal change.”
Pepe’s work has long questioned indoor space as literally and symbolically closing the door of potential to women. Here, within the context of a park setting, the artist considers publicness to create physical positions that welcome all parkgoers through a fabricated city garden.
Pepe’s plan to convene neighbors in her studio and in the park is the conceptual warp and weft of My Neighbor’s Garden, an experiment where makers find a community for support and identity. Pepe and the Conservancy plan to continue these gatherings during public programs in the park throughout the exhibition. This methodology of learning through and disseminating expertise is central to her practice. The artist estimates that 15,000 yards of materials have been crocheted over a six-month period.
“Simultaneous to creating My Neighbor’s Garden in her Brooklyn studio, Sheila Pepe gathered a community of crocheters to make this vibrant work within the context of her decades-long practice,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Artistic Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator, Madison Square Park Conservancy. “Pepe’s hand has touched every stitch in this work as have her questions about traditional sculptural materials and ideas around neighborhood gardens throughout the city. Madison Square Park is the ideal setting for the artist to continue to test the reach of textiles.”
My Neighbor’s Garden is accompanied by public programming that builds on the exhibition’s themes, including three free outdoor concerts with Carnegie Hall Citywide, the Aizuri Quartet on July 12 and July 26 and the Aeolus Quartet on July 19; Art Talks with artists, horticulture experts, and cultural leaders; Botanical Book Club selections; and a reflection board where parkgoers respond to a question inspired by the exhibition.
Pepe’s project in Madison Square Park is organized by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Artistic Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator; Tom Reidy, Deputy Director for Finance and Special Projects; and Truth Murray-Cole, Senior Curatorial Manager. Stephanie Lucas, Director of Park Operations and Horticulture; Jessica Kaplan, Horticulture Manager; and Aiyanna Milligan, Horticulture Associate are working closely with the artist on horticulture selections. Holly Leicht is the Conservancy’s Executive Director.
About the Artist
Sheila Pepe was born in Morristown, New Jersey in 1959. She lives and works in Brooklyn. Pepe received a BA from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven; a BFA in ceramics from Massachusetts School of Art, Boston and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The artist’s mother taught her to crochet in the 1960s. Pepe discovered women artists who were a generation or two older and associated with the feminist art movement – Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, and Nancy Spero – as a crucible to launch her sculptural investigations. Those women responded to the fury of the Vietnam War and became agents of activism for Pepe who overturned hoary assumptions by responding to gender, queer identity, and civil rights. She also questioned the materiality in sculpture, so closely linked to gender. Pepe radicalized the grandmotherly constitution of crochet into a paradigm of feminist action. She studied blacksmithing at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine and received a fellowship to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Pepe has had numerous solo and group exhibitions including Des Moines Art Center; ICA Boston; Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum; University Gallery at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Weatherspoon Art Museum, North Carolina; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus. She contributed to Liquid Sky (2007), which was on view at MoMA PS1. Research Station for the People (2014) was included in the 8th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennial, OCAT, Shenzhen, China. Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism (2017), the artist’s mid-career survey, was organized by Phoenix Art Museum and traveled to Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse; Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha; and deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln. Tabernacle for Trying Times (2021), an exhibition with painter Carrie Moyer, was organized by Portland Museum of Art, Maine and traveled to the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Pepe’s work is in private and public collections including Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University; Rose Art Museum at Brandeis; Smith College Museum of Art; and Harvard University Art Museums. She has had residencies including the Bunting Institute, Radcliffe College at Harvard University, and Civitetella Ranieri, Umbertide, Italy. Pepe is the former Assistant Chairperson of Fine Art at Pratt Institute. She will be Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth College for the 2024 winter term.
Below you can read and/or download Maria Rosaria Roseo’s interview with Sheila Pepe, published in the April 2022 issue of AM