“My favorite thing is crocheting 20 feet in the air,” the artist Sheila Pepe said at her studio in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. There across the floor last month she was laying out coils of vibrantly colored shoelaces, paracord, rope and garden hose, more than 15,000 yards’ worth, to be strung and spun into her first outdoor installation, opening on June 26 in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.
“Up high, in my overalls and my crochet hook in hand, on top of a drivable scissor lift, it’s the funniest gender joke in the world for me,” said the 63-year-old artist, who identifies as lesbian. “Now you’re Grandma! Now you’re Uncle Joe!”
For more than two decades, Pepe has used the craft of crochet, which she learned as a child from her mother, as a way to “draw” in three dimensions and infiltrate architecture. Her handmade, unruly webs, which she attaches to museum walls and ceilings in large-scale ephemeral installations, soar and sag — challenging long-held ideas about monumentality in sculpture.
Using crochet in place of steel, Pepe has invited reconsideration of a humble craft done by generations of women and the painstaking labor that went into it. “I couldn’t grow up where I did,” she said, without recognizing the invisibility of unsung work by her own family, which immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century. Her grandfather ran a shoe repair shop in Brooklyn, and her parents owned a deli in Morristown, N.J.
At the northern end of Madison Square Park, Pepe has suspended strips of crocheted material, measuring as long as 95 feet, from the tops of eight existing lampposts and eight 20-foot-tall telephone poles newly planted around the lawn and walkways. She has built these festive gateways and canopies in a ravishing palette of pinks, oranges, reds and purples. Around each pole, vining flowers and vegetable plants are climbing toward the sun on cords strung from the pole tops, and are ultimately expected to entwine with Pepe’s garlands of crochet fiber.
“I do have this fantasy that the plants overtake the crochet, that it just goes haywire,” said Pepe, who drew inspiration from the gardens — some lush, some funky — sprouting from front yards, community plots and concrete slabs in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she lives with her wife, the painter Carrie Moyer.
The sheer volume of material needed to make an impact outdoors required Pepe, who typically does all her own crocheting, to scale up her studio practice. “I never wanted an art factory,” said Pepe, who instead has recruited and gathered small, lively groups of friends and strangers alike to crochet together to help produce the installation.
“There is something about a crocheting circle, where stitches are shared,” Pepe said — along with “information that might be useful.”
This practice taps into the long history of women convening, under cover of creating craft, to talk about the issues of the day, said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, artistic director and chief curator at the Madison Square Park Conservancy. “These sewing circles and knitting clubs and quilting bees were forums to talk about women’s rights, to propel the abolition of slavery, to create garments and blankets sold to provide income,” Rapaport said. “That inspires Sheila.”
Lauren Filipink, a high school history teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School, had never heard of Pepe when she responded to an Instagram post by Madison Square Park looking for crocheters of any gender or ability. She was one of 23 women ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s who showed up at the artist’s studio across several Saturdays to crochet long chains of Day-Glo-colored shoelaces with oversize hooks. (Each was paid $50 a day.)
“There was something sort of magical that happened as we were chatting away as we worked,” Filipink said. Pepe gave basic parameters on the crochet stitch and length she wanted, and in the course of the afternoon a reporter witnessed, any initial reserve between participants quickly fell away. The communal freewheeling conversation barreled through topics from most embarrassing email addresses to disco naps.
Filipink, a prodigious crocheter who personally processed several thousand yards for the project, said she likes how it is a disruption — “taking a very indoor craft relegated to the women’s sphere and turning it outdoors.”
Pepe also enlisted the help of five friends from what she calls her “power queer group,” including the theater maker Moe Angelos. With “My Neighbor’s Garden,” Pepe is building community, Angelos said. “In a city, you have a little pea patch and the people next to you have their little pea patch and you talk across the fence,” she added. “Community is a very threadbare word right now, but the connection is real.”
Growing up within the confines of her traditional family, Pepe described the future her mother envisioned for her as one of limited options: bank teller, nurse, teacher, nun. Instead, Pepe opted for art, completing a degree in ceramics in 1983 at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. There, she also realized she was a lesbian. After graduation, she rejected the idea of a career in the art world — living for much of the next decade in a community of separatist feminists and working at a lesbian-run restaurant in Alston and later on a farm in western Massachusetts.
“I learned that being a separatist, like being in the Catholic Church, was way too dogmatic for me,” said Pepe, who eventually found her way back to art making, working first at the Smith College Museum of Art, and then getting her M.F.A., in 1995, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts in Boston.
Initially, crochet was just part of her grab bag of media, which included ceramics, carved wood and found objects melded in sculptures that Pepe began exhibiting in the late 1990s. (She continues to make eclectic tabletop sculptures in her studio today.)
She mounted her first large-scale crocheted installation in 2001 at Grinnell College in Iowa, combining industrial-size rubber bands with men’s shoelaces, tied end to end, in homage to her grandfather’s shoemaking trade. “Then it just grew and grew,” said Pepe, who does not have gallery representation, accepting commissions directly from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Des Moines Art Center, among other institutions.
In 2017, the curator Gilbert Vicario organized her midcareer survey at the Phoenix Art Museum, which he titled “Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism” — a reference to the simultaneous beauty and chaos of her installations. “When you first walk in, your eye goes all over the place,” said Vicario, who is now chief curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. “People have different reactions, always visceral.”
Earlier this week, mid-installation at Madison Square Park, Pepe was in her happy place. Up in the bucket of the scissor lift, she maneuvered through her huge cat’s cradle, cinching lines and crocheting them with larger stitched panels to create dense splashes of color among the trees.
“Ninety-nine percent of the actual piece happens on site,” Pepe said, surveying the many months’ worth of chunky crocheted chains and shapes that resemble mandalas laid out on tarps over the grass. “It’s like three-dimensional chess.”
Over the course of the exhibition, which runs through Dec. 10, Pepe will convene makers informally under the big tent of “My Neighbor’s Garden” as part of the public programming.
While crochet, and craft generally, is no longer on the periphery of the art world, Pepe still finds the medium a useful way to initiate conversations on a spectrum of ideas — from marginalization to optimism, it’s all on the menu.
“Did I think I would be still doing this 20 years later? No,” she said. But when invited to the party, she brings her gifts. “It’s like my best Bundt cake.”
My Neighbor’s Garden
Through Dec. 10, Madison Square Park, 23rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues; madisonsquarepark.org.