Itâs the week of the 2019 summer solstice, the yearly point when the sun reaches its zenith, and Penny Sisto is up before that life-giver, giving life to the fabric beneath her old, knobby fingers. She cuts muslin into a huge oval, the bottom curving into a chin. She presses pastels or watercolors into the cheeks and drizzles in some coffee to darken the skin. Then she scorches it with one of the thrift-shop clothing irons she keeps lined up on the windowsill of her New Albany at-home studio â or, as she calls it, âthe sweatshop.â
The coffee steams like magic, joins the sweet smell of Nag Champa lingering in the air. Sisto births eye sockets from a Sharpie tip, keeping the lines loose. âIâm not too fussy,â says the 78-year-old, who every year makes an average of 200 such portrait-based quilts that look like collage and stained glass had a cloth baby. She steps outside and adds spray paint for a subtle gold sheen. Most of the time, Sisto doesnât recognize the faces forming at her fingers. They arrive like cloud people, coming to her in dreams in her log cabin home in the woods, or while praying in the teepee out back in the predawn stillness or in the yurt if the teepeeâs too cold. Sometimes the figures look like Jesus, or monk-theologian Thomas Merton, or Jimi Hendrix, her man crush. A lot of the time theyâre women: Maria de Guadalupe, Joan of Arc (a favorite for her bravery), or mother and child. While sewing, Sisto tries her best not to mess the whole thing up. She calls her stitching clumsy, her hands âmonkey paws.â
And those hands. Theyâre the same hands that have moved a needle through fabric since she was three years old, when her granny taught her to sew in Scotland. Theyâre the same hands that got Sisto fired from a clothing factory and an alterations shop for âsloppy sewingâ when she was 19, having fled home in the Scottish isles to the capital of Edinburgh. Theyâre the hands that delivered babies when Sisto was a midwife in Kenya and later at a California commune. Theyâve delivered her own babies (eight from her body, seven living) and her babiesâ babies. Now, her right index knuckle is like a small world balancing on bone. Thereâs pain as she maneuvers the needle, the cheapest kind she can buy by the hundred-pack at Ben Franklin Crafts because she drops or breaks them all the time. âMy poor battered hand,â she says, remembering a rock falling on it when she was building her fishpond. âItâs obedient, but uncomfortable. When youâre old, you expect pain to remind you to die to make room for a younger one.â She only hand-sews little details.
She cuts and pins whatever fabric she has pulled from a shelf that spews it â some from Goodwill clothes or from recycled old quilts she made but couldnât sell (some on account of their âgraphic" subject matter, like female circumcision and war injuries). More fabric swirls on the floor like âlittle snake piles,â as a daughter-in-law says. Itâs as though rainbows fell out of the sky and collapsed in her studio. âIâm a fabric whore,â Sisto says. âI even beg people, âYou know, when that wears out, hereâs my address.â And then Iâll get mysterious little boxes of fabric.â Priest friends, like the one who married her and her husband of 38 years, Richard Sisto (known around Louisville as âDick,â the music teacher at the University of Louisville, vibraphonist and radio host), pass along old robes and shawls with crosses. Ditto her activist friends, like Karina Barillas from La Casita Center, who gave Sisto bright prints from Guatemala. A most common friend is polyester, because it has a thousand-year shelf life and never fades or creases. âIâll mix that next to a piece of antique lace that costs $200 a yard,â says Sisto, whose favorite fabric is silk, which sheâll often hand-dye with Procion, marveling at the way it refracts light.
Sisto layers her quilt subjectâs hair with more fabric, sometimes with digitally printed mountains or trees, sometimes by stitching in birds cut from cloth. Marbled feathers wing from a shoulder. Roses from a set of curtains become a womanâs robes. A cosmos pattern swirls into a patch of nose. Pieces are cut into eggs from which human babies hatch. She makes hands that hold crosses or wolves, or Christâs hands, positioned in the meditation mudra.
This solstice morning, Sisto revisits a piece she recently finished. The face is like that of the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy. At 37 by 53 inches, itâs bigger than she expected. She worked on it in the dark by the light of an oil lamp, as she often does, like she did when she was a kid. By twilight, her eyes spilled over with effort to see the needle and thread, sequins guiding the way. Today, the sun still on its way, Sisto starts on seven new pieces. She calls herself a âbusybody old ladyâ and often contemplates what causes such excesses in her. Her husband, still asleep or otherwise tossing and turning with his insomnia (a long life of long nights as a jazz musician âruiningâ his sleep, he says), has told his wife sheâs a âhuman dynamo.â Sometimes she stays bent over her worktable so long she forgets the aching in her small, aging body (which she hates to spoil with any substance â coffee, tea, Advil, whatever). She forgets to eat her banana breakfast. Her light blond hair with its whitening wisps falls around her square face, home to her sea-blue eyes, so focused on the fabric.
As the first light slides through the trees, Sisto thinks about her sons and grandsons. Complicated men, she says, who project a closed-offness that she doesnât experience with her âEarth-closeâ daughters and granddaughters, with whom no wordâs left unsaid. âThe unfathomable grief of men,â she calls it. How theyâve buried their pain until it comes out as anger or deep sadness. She steps into the pain and tries to heal it when sheâs welcomed. Sistoâs primary directive in life is to mend. âNever to add to the rip and certainly not to add to the violence,â she says. âMy own life was so chaotic, since I never expected to live, that Iâve spent a lifetime stitching things back together.â
Finished pieces hang high on driftwood shafts a son-in-law assembled. The dotted eyes seem to follow Sisto as she pulls thread in and out of the cloth.
Sâisto remembers the sea spray through the window of her childhood home on the northernmost Orkney Island, North Ronaldsay, Scotland. The salt lived in her skin, and the winds propelled her and her pram dinghy, with its blunt stern and pair of oars, away from that home. Toward school when there wasnât too much farm work â cows to milk, hay to pull up, wheat to chaff. Toward âwee covesâ or shushing shores under the bright star nights sheâd disappear into on what she called âsunny-mooners.â A practiced wanderer, Sisto knew to avoid the huge whirlpools that arose from nothing. She found solace in the seals and puffins that edged close to her boat, and the eagles â their wings like freedom â flying overhead. Here, she felt connected to everything. The winds hugged her calm. The sea was like a mother.
From her first conscious thoughts at age three, Sisto wanted out of that small house where her granny, great-granny, great-aunt Lil, Malcolm the Cowman, her grandfather and she lived. Gone was her own âmum,â banished from the house that day in 1941 when Sisto was born foot first on the couch as Annie Stewart â the child of her mother and grandfather. âAs a kid, Iâd only heard that she wasnât right in the head,â Sisto says. âBut kids arenât stupid. Theyâre just tiny. I knew what was happening to me, so I could surmise what happened to her and why she left.â As a girl, Sisto figured the sexual abuse she was experiencing from her grandfather was her fault because she says she was âa mouthy little rat running around that they were having to feed.â She felt sorry for her grandfather, the powerful farmer, more-than-competent doctor, skilled fisherman. Heâd hang his head like a schoolboy, say, âIâm sorry. Youâll forget it one day, I promise.â Or growl: âYou are living under my roof. Why should someone else reap the benefit of this?â Her grandfatherâs round shaving mirror was tacked high on a door, and Sisto â whoâd been repeatedly told she shouldâve never been born and was a nobody â was always too short to see herself. She studied the gruesome drawings in her grandfatherâs copy of the Book of Martyrs, her early idea of art.
Nothing in that worn-down house was secret, but everything was kept quiet. The family â âwith their soft moans and murmurs like whale songs,â Sisto says â would gather around the peat stove in the evenings for warmth. Theyâd knit the wool from the familyâs flock of sheep by the light of oil lamps. With her four needles, Sisto made knee-high stockings â thick, scratchy, warm and, because of the lanolin, sea-proof. Her granny had taught Sisto to sew when she was three, and the girl would help make patches for quilts that theyâd sell at the market along with butter, eggs and bacon. Poor, poor, poor, Granny saved every scrap of cast-off yarn and secondhand cloth, reworking it into skirts, jackets, blankets, washcloths. One of Sistoâs favorite treasures was her grannyâs big bag of fabric scraps.
When something would break, Sisto would try to mend it. Like when one of the wells ran dry and her grandfather seemed worried. Sisto spent nearly every hour she wasnât at school â which she often skipped, not making it past sixth grade â hiking water in a bucket from one well to the other so heâd have one less trouble. Sometimes Sisto would act out: throw or break things, hit. And thatâs when her granny started calling Sisto (who was named Annie after her grandmother) âPennyâ â like pence, the low-value coin. A couple of times her granny sent Sisto to stay with her birth mother living on Scotlandâs mainland and who had never claimed Sisto as her own.
Mostly Sisto would escape. Take the horse around the head of the island, past the lighthouse. Take a stick to the sand â the long, wet flats of it â shaping it into faces of family, the wild sea mirroring storm clouds. She watched the way mama birds would so lovingly care for their babies. Because other families on the island knew Sisto as a bastard child, they forbade their children to play with her. Her stench didnât help; Sisto was a bedwetter (âfrom my ripped vagina and bladder trauma,â she says) and did not bathe often. Kids called her âpiss pot.â Ashamed, sheâd go and sleep in an old church, learn Jesus through the windows. Except for the ocean and animals, Sisto was alone.
Then, Sisto says, late one summer came the âtinker,â a member of an artsy, nomadic, likely Romani group. Seven-year-old Sisto was set to sewing patches well enough to hold them together so her granny could later fine-stitch. A shadow came across the old barn-style door, half-opened. Sisto looked up. âThere was this little swarthy guy looking over the door,â she says. His complexion was dark compared with the Viking-like lightness of her neighbors. Her eyes lit with the glint of his earrings, the color of his scarves. She knew of these âgypsiesâ whoâd roam France, Britain and eventually north to Scotland, exchanging jewels and pretty bowls.
He said yes, his eyes focused on the bacon hanging from the rafters. âIâve come to exchange for some of those,â he said.
He left in a dash and she chased after him, begging him to take her away. She says he turned and said, âNo, youâre too damn ugly.â
âIf I wouldâve been a crier, I wouldâve cried,â Sisto says now. âMy granny used to say, âYouâre as cold as the ocean,â âcause my eyes never wept tears. I was feeling them. I just didnât let them out because it seemed, when my body was small, to show a weakness would encourage them to antagonize harder.â
She went back to the house, the fabric still there, the man still on her mind. Her simple nine-patch started growing into a bearded figure. A scrap of plaid made a skirt, striped scrap a shirt, blue a headscarf. The manâs skin filled with wool. When Granny came in, a proud little Sisto approached her with the creation behind her back. âI made you a gift,â she said, bringing forward her surprise.
âAye,â Sisto said, thinking her granny â with her glowing, auburn hair â was delighted. Then Granny reached for the horse crop. Granny: the abusive, heavy drinker. But also, Granny, Sistoâs everything. Granny was the six-foot star of the ceilidh (pronounced âkay-lee,â a joyful gathering with dancing), where sheâd swig whisky and play fiddle and sing, her voice deep. Her hands could spin wool fine as a silk thread or butcher a cow. Sisto remembers only once being held on her grannyâs lap, and, when she recalls it, she can still whiff the wetness of her grannyâs sealskin coat, can still feel the joy in that quick moment as she pretended to be asleep so itâd last longer. Summers later, her granny would take her âtweeningâ (working) at a small hotel where German and Japanese tourists came to fish salmon and hunt deer. Sisto would look forward to it all year. Sistoâs granny bought her a new book and a pair of shoes each Christmas. âSheâs my hero to this day in many ways, because she kept me alive. She didnât have to. Who wouldâve known?â Sisto says.
Sisto left home when she was about 19 and pregnant. She didnât want to risk another girl born in that house. âI took my belly and I ran,â she says. She hitchhiked to Edinburgh, feeling safer each kilometer the car lurched forward.
âPenny is drawn to people who are wounded, marginalized,â says Sally Newkirk, who saw New Albanyâs Floyd County Museum into its reincarnation as the Carnegie Center for Art and History as director for 30 years. She first heard Sisto speak some 25 years ago at an Indiana Arts Commission awards presentation. Since then, the two have collaborated on six shows, Sisto working in series. âWe think of quilts as something you curl up in and it provides warmth and comfort,â Newkirk says. âShe is able to deal with difficult subjects and show the humanity of the people in dehumanizing circumstances.â The many-irised eyes â which Sisto makes by dabbing âpuffy paintâ that dries like a hard plastic â seem to emit both pain and joy, and they follow you around the room.
Sistoâs âSlaveryâ series from 2006 remains fresh in Newkirkâs heart. One quilt represented enslaved men crossing on a ship from Africa to the colonies. Light a Candle in Heaven shows Harriet Tubman â with her head wrap encircled by a star-like fabric â standing with two winged children, holding up candles to the dark-as-night path. In another, a black woman cradles a white baby, ancestors swirling around her head. âI felt no one in the area at the time outside of (local sculptor) Ed Hamilton was telling this story,â she says. âSo even though I was in no way privy to the feeling of an enslaved people â having been exposed in Africa and to the civil rights movement here, I felt I could help open a door and maybe more people would pick up the threads.â Hamilton and his wife Bernadette bought one of Sistoâs âSlaveryâ pieces, saying the subject in it looked like Bernadetteâs niece.
âI'm a fabric whore,â Sisto says. âI even beg people, âWhen that wears out, here's my address.â And then I'll get mysterious little boxes of fabric.â
Karen Gillenwater, former curator at the Carnegie Center and now museum manager at Louisvilleâs 21c, remembers a quilt that wove together the stories of Jesus walking on water and Buddha. (âAll these higher beings have similar properties,â Sisto says.) âPenny would do a lot of research when doing a series,â Gillenwater says. âSheâd talk to people in the community to get to the heart of the matter, how it affected them.â Sisto often acknowledges how we, as Americans, are all immigrants and âlive on stolen land.â
In the â90s, Sisto was the subject of two PBS documentaries for her pieces that sometimes feature bones, baubles, beads, horsehair, pubic hair and feathers. Sheâs received awards, and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, where she has taught quilting workshops during artist retreats. âI should get off my ass and find a gallery, but I never will,â she says. âA, Iâm not very good at it. And B, itâs only art, and Iâm only an old lady, you know. Itâs not important. That little birdie is of more importance. It holds the whole weaving together.â
Red dirt. Sisto dropped to the earth when she saw it in Uganda, off the plane from England and on the way to Kenya as a volunteer midwife for the British Ministry of Overseas Development in Africa. Finally, a world of warmth, bright sun. She was in her early 20s and already with three children (two born from a love affair she had with a schoolteacher in England before his wife took him back). When she arrived in the Maasai village by the Jeep-bump of night, Sisto says the women â with their plaid shukas and beads of every hue â greeted her open-armed. Sisto, who had never been received in such a way, was a little hesitant at first. Then Sisto says a woman took Sistoâs three-month-old and breastfed her. âNow weâre sisters,â the woman said.
In hut hollows, Sisto âcaughtâ babies, as sheâd started doing at 16 after watching her grandfather deliver humans and animals alike. âTheyâre slippery little things,â Sisto says. âItâs very natural for me. I think because I have a lifelong journey of pain from tissue trauma down there, Iâm very aware of what helps babies get through in a gentle way.â But in Kenya, Sisto learned more from the Maasai women than her doctorâs bag of oxytocin, IVs and vial of ergonovine (to stop vaginal bleeding) could hold. She says one woman delivering a baby âtook a handful of spider web and pushed it into the womanâs twat.â On a free day, Sisto took her motorbike, machete and the kids â the oldest hugging her at the waist, the second sitting between her legs, the third strapped to her chest â to Nairobi. At the library there, Sisto learned that spider webs are rich in vitamin K, known to clot blood. âThey knew this through a thousand years of healing,â Sisto says. âMy mind was blown.â
As a midwife in Africa for three and a half years, Sisto learned a lot about female circumcision, which she vehemently opposes and compares to exposing the inside of a cheek or eyeball. âWho first looked at a beautiful cunt and said, âYou know what would improve that?â Nothing improves that. Itâs about control,â she says. On male circumcision, she says, âWhy would you remove healthy tissue for the fear of some unknown? Nature put it there. Because Iâm a freak I think: Is this why America is so violent? Is this why thereâs violence against women? Because the first huge memory outside the birth is the exquisite pain with no anesthetic, saying, âOh, theyâll forget about itâ? No body forgets shit. Let alone major trauma when your bodyâs small. Thatâs got to go somewhere.â (Sisto has done a quilt series on circumcision, one featuring a flowery vulva, another with an incision knife, mimicking the sharp and rusty one she has from Africa hanging on a wall at her Floyds Knobs cabin. These didnât sell well.)
Like Sisto, the Maasai recycled scraps (plastic, tin, fabric) into art. She marveled at all the necklaces made in their beaded crochet style. She learned how to use dried banana leaves and deep-red eucalyptus leaves to make collages, which the Maasai would sell to travelers. Sisto uses similar techniques to this day, ripping up bits of colored paper from magazines. Around her cabin, she has several paper collage pieces, one representing her Maasai friends-like-family, Mary and Elizabeth. Her shower door is a tile mosaic of an African woman, belly swollen with life inside.
While Sisto was away, the kiddos would play. One daughter, Anna Whites, guesses she was between three and five while in Africa and can remember glimpses of her time there: like the python that lived under the hut and one day revealed its 20-foot self, then killed by the neighbors. âMom kept the skin and had it hanging in the hut,â Whites says. She remembers the taste of the anchovy-like things that magically appeared from the dirt when the rain came â the termites, their honey-sweet abdomens. âFor mom, a vegetarian, that must have been terrifying for her to see her tiny âinsectivoreâ children,â says Whites, now a health lawyer in Frankfort.
It was the early â60s and John F. Kennedyâs freshly formed Peace Corps had brought clinics and folks doing animal-husbandry work to Africa. Sisto met Americans for the first time. âThey all loved my kids,â she says. âAnd one got to love me, too, unfortunately.â That was the Princeton graduate she would go on to marry and return to the United States with. When they flew from Britain to America, Sisto encouraged her three-year-old daughter Becki, whoâd never seen herself in the mirror, to peep her reflection in the ladiesâ room. âShe started screaming and clawing at her face,â Sisto says. âI hadnât realized her identity was amongst the Maasai. I guess she assumed she was black.â Whites says Becki would look around and ask, âWho are all these ghost people?â
The new family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Sisto worked as a janitor at an Armenian church just off Harvard Square. She walked barefoot into bookstores, once taking home Who Am I? by Ramana Maharshi, an Indian man who lived in a cave near Arunachala mountain and whose teachings sheâd come to follow. The family hitchhiked around and went to Boston for civil-rights protests. She showed up to one protest three months pregnant, and the police, with their gas masks and shields and batons, hit wherever they could. âIt was the first thing I did and really enjoyed in America,â she says.
âWhen she speaks, itâs like youâre in church,â says Joe McGee, a mixed-media artist who had a joint show with Sisto at Bellarmine University last year for the 50th anniversary of Thomas Mertonâs death. At the show opening in November 2018, McGee knew people werenât there to see his abstract pastels and acrylics; they were there to see Sisto. Hell, he was there to see Sisto, whom he calls a âspirit personâ and âlike Mother Earth.â McGee â who thinks Sistoâs work has been overlooked and says, âI donât know why sheâs not in the Speed (Art Museum) collectionâ â wants to see Meryl Streep as the lead in a movie about Sistoâs life.
At the opening, Sisto floated around the room chatting with people, her long, loose skirt shuffling at her feet. Hawk feathers hung from a string around her neck, remnants of a young one she tried saving at the end of the driveway of her New Albany home. She was taking her youngest to Floyd Central High School when she saw crows pecking at something. âLike any good mom, I said, âWhat the fuck?ââ she says. She stuck the bird under her nightie (her âgoony gownâ), knowing that birds calm in the dark. Sisto rehabs wild animals because veterinarians donât. Newkirk remembers meeting with Sisto one time to discuss an upcoming show and Sisto saying, âI can come but need to be back within an hour because some newborn squirrels fell out of their nest.â Newkirk says, âI think she had one of the squirrels with her at the meeting. I may be making that up, but I could totally see Penny doing that.â
When Sisto was called up to the front to speak at the Merton show, she sighed, âWell, shit,â because she never loves to be the center of attention. (In an email during the reporting of this story, she wrote, âI presumed the article wasnât accepted. Know that I am not a being who aches for publicity, so it is fine with me if you drop the idea or find another more interesting artist subject for your article.â) At the show, Sisto then eloquently rolled into a âweeâ speech on the way weâre treating the planet (badly). It felt like a call to arms, which is to say open arms, which is to say love.
Earlier this year, Sisto was talking in her yurt, where she sometimes hosts family gatherings. (She is surprised the floor hasnât fallen through yet with the weight of them all.) She lit sage and candles in a ceramic bowl gifted to her after a birthing in California and called Trump âthe gift that keeps on taking.â She said, âI keep searching for his heart, but I donât see any. He doesnât even seem to love his kids. I keep waiting for the poor, tortured thing to reach the bottom of who he is.â She talked about how, as a midwife, she was offered large amounts of money to perform abortions. âI was never able to do it, because my job is to stitch things back together, not to pull them apart, but I have paid for young womenâs abortions, including people in the family tribe,â she said.
In the yurt, she noticed every hawk cry, a little bird âpossibly cracking open a seedâ and even an almost-translucent spider crawling up her loose clothes. She said, âWe just must tread carefully.â
When Sisto arrived at the Ananda Village, a spiritual community in Californiaâs Sierra Nevada foothills, she says she was âthe next schlepping hippie woman with kids hanging off her like a possum â one on each tit and the rest hanging by the tail.â She and her then-husband had made the cross-country trek in a VW bus. The red dirt roads were like earth veins; the manzanita bushes lush, berries powdery. In the temples, the community worshipped Jesus, Buddha, Shiva. They chanted, prayed, meditated and sang God into everything.
Sisto says she opened up a free clinic where she delivered babies, eased colds. Sistoâs daughter Becki Romans, who was around four years old when the family rolled into Ananda, remembers the lines of people waiting at the clinic door for a baby checkup or stitches or to have a dogâs eyeball sewn back in. âIâd watch people try to figure out how to repay her and her refusing time after time,â says Romans, who works at the Mount Saint Francis Center for Spirituality outside New Albany. Sisto would sometimes deliver babies on the large bed in the familyâs two-room cabin, as casual as dinner. Romans, always intrigued by birth and death and anything out of the ordinary, would hand her mother warm water and clean linens. âItâs incredible to see a midwife, but more incredible to see someone who is a midwife to herself,â says Romans, remembering the birth of her two younger brothers at home, her mother laboring peacefully, hardly with any sound.
Sisto didnât have much time for art during the 10 years the family lived there. But there were times when, money stretched thin, she would make felt mice at Christmas to sell at a neighboring market (along with little cheesecakes). Sisto made what money she could to keep food on the low-to-the-ground dining table, in a house festooned with spider webs to catch the flies. âIt looked like the Addams Family house,â Whites says. Without TV, Sisto encouraged the kids to read. The library was a treasure cove where they brought home all the books they could carry. The battery-powered record player spun operas such as The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Sisto was always loose in her mothering. âMy way with the kids is, I tell you something once, twice; three times itâs nagging,â she says. âLife will give the consequence, if the good advice isnât taken. I never felt the need to punish upon punish.
The anger from Sistoâs husband manifested on the ridge. The abuse almost felt natural to her. âI had a warped idea of love. I thought itâs just what men did,â she says. âIt never crossed my mind to walk. I thought like a beaten dog.â On bad days, Sisto would take the kids to the woods to find âfaerie housesâ â old moss-covered stumps that sheâd cover with tiny pancakes and thimble-sized containers of juice. When the man raised his hands against two of the kids, Sisto stepped in. Thatâs when she says he broke her collarbone. The day he raised a rope to the oldest, she stepped in again. Thatâs when he kicked her in the belly while she was pregnant. (Romali was born injured but made it only three days before Sisto says she had to take him to the crematory. She stitched the image of his face into a quilt in memorial.) Finally, Sistoâs secret came out like a flood to a friend. Her abusive husband had gone to a nearby town to buy a gun because, Sisto says, she âobviously wasnât listening.â She laughs a little telling the story now and says, âGood logic.â Upon his return â gun in tow â she says the men in the community sent him to a center for batterers and abusers. âItâs the penalty of no education for women,â says Sisto, who got a divorce. âIâm a walking example.â
Eventually Whites sold her Appaloosa and gave her mom the money to âvisit her good friend Richard in Kentucky.â Upon receiving the money, Sisto replied, âYou didnât hold up a bank, did you?!â
Râichard Sisto had been the first person Penny saw when the VW bus parked that first day at Ananda. An olive-skinned, dark-haired Italian man, he reminded her of the âtinkerâ whoâd visited all those years ago in Scotland. Richard was a âleading lightâ at the commune, teaching meditation. He and Penny would have conversations about their Catholic upbringings and shared gurus. â(Penny) has an amazing ability to work such long hours and still be so present with people,â says Richard, who was at the time married with two kids, Meadow (now a vegan cook) and Jeremy (now an actor), whom Whites would babysit. (Eventually Richardâs wife left, bored by the lifestyle.) Richard told Penny stories of finding Zen Buddhism in Chicago, where he grew up, and of Thomas Merton, who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani monastery in Trappist, Kentucky, and whom Richard befriended while playing a jazz gig in Louisville.
Penny moved into Richardâs house in New Haven near the monastery âon the cusp of â79, â80,â Penny says. âI presume it was like taking a wild raccoon into your house.â The youngest of Pennyâs kids, Bethany Parks, mustâve been three at the time, but she still remembers first seeing the big white farmhouse with black shutters â with its running water, plumbing and electricity. Soon, Richard approached Penny with her name on the land deed. âThe ultimate devotion,â she says. They got married on the farm.
Penny kept up work on the farm and did her art without the stress of midwifery. Richard looked for a jazz gig in Louisville, which he landed at the Seelbach Hotel for a good 25 years. (Outside the Seelbach, at Fourth Street and what's now Muhammad Ali Boulevard, is where Merton had a spiritual experience that he famously wrote about â âI was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these peopleâ â and Richard is convinced itâs a miracle corner.) Tuesdays through Saturdays, Richard would leave at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and return at 2 or 3 in the morning in time to milk the cows with Penny.
With little money, Penny did as she always did, using fabric scraps and only her hands to sew until she could afford a machine. She started making 28-foot-tall quilts that churches would use on their holy days or for funerals. âThey were so long, she couldnât see the perspective of the piece,â Richard says. He describes her work as painting with fabrics. Sheâd make cowls (monk robes with hoods) for the neighboring monastery, too.
Many of Pennyâs works have been displayed at religious institutions, but she doesnât identify as Catholic anymore. âIt was very easy leaving. Too masculine. Too many rules. Too much pain in the history,â says Penny, who still loves making religious art, though to her, Christ and the Madonna are people of color. âI just donât get this blue-eyed image. Get over it.â (On forms she writes her religion as âdruid.â âWhoâs going to argue with that?â she says.)
Twenty-eight years ago, the Sistos moved to the acre in New Albany bordering Mount Saint Francis, where the couple currently lives. Back then, Penny remembers there being nothing but sky and trees and frogs. They built the little log cabin â with its wood stove and mosaic tile floor and vintage Wedgewood oven â close enough for Richard to get to his jazz gigs and far enough from town for Penny to be at peace.
There is a piece from back then that sticks out in Parksâ mind: a Vietnam War quilt, featuring a fallen soldier with shiny pink intestines spilling from his body. âI remember the pink satin tie from a robe that she used for the guts,â Parks says. At the time, Sisto says, a nearby public library was featuring art from the community but refused to showcase the quilt. She spent sunup to sundown holding her 10-by-12-foot piece in protest, with police gathering until some Vietnam veterans in uniform joined her. âThe passion with which I protested the war, when the vets returned and were so broken, I had the same passion,â Sisto says. âI went to the vet center and apologized. I said, âI protested and called you baby killers. Now I see there are two sides.ââ
In the early â90s, Sisto made a piece portraying a young man dying of AIDS, two of his lovers standing by his bed in mourning. It showed at Edenside Gallery, which had recently opened on Bardstown Road. âI left room on it for people to sign names of beloveds lost to the disease,â she says. âPretty soon you couldnât see the quilt.â
Much of her work hangs in the small cabin, most notably the huge quilt on buffalo hide thatâs been bought and returned to her several times. âThe energy in it was too powerful,â she says of the piece that incorporates white shells and pokeberries and centers a woman with a gold sun haloing her head, a teepee in her heart, and a child â the future â in her hands. Books on Hinduism and Buddhism slant on a shelf in the living room, where animal bones hang out in the windowsills. Cookies or some dessert Penny has whipped up are usually fresh on the kitchen counter. Richardâs studio, where heâll unfold compositions on his keyboard, is adjacent to Pennyâs sewing studio. The walls are supposed to be soundproof but arenât. Penny prefers to work in the quiet but will occasionally listen to the Moth Radio Hour podcast, or join Richard to watch the news at night as she sews and swears at the TV.
When itâs not the news or KET, itâs the Real Housewives (of anywhere) or 90 Day FiancÃ©. âI will watch that if I think Richard wonât walk in and witness my aberration,â she says with a laugh. She remembers how an old friend â a silent old yogi in California â would lead meditations, then would relax by drinking hot milk with nutmeg and honey, eating Oreo cookies and watching The Young and the Restless. It was Pennyâs first time seeing a TV.
Almost every day, a visitor comes to the studio to see Penny, who loves to chat and laugh. She goes to yoga in downtown New Albany with two of her daughters or will make the occasional trip to Kroger, her âbig weekly outing living it up in the veggie department!â There, sheâll practice saying hello to people, because she can sometimes be antisocial, the empath who can keep her eyes downcast. Then she goes like a chipmunk â hi! hi! hi! â embarrassing Richard. A lot of times, she lies on the ground on her land to hear the rumble of the Earth. Sheâll take long walks through the woods, her need for movement untamed. This worries Richard, who acts as a kind of herd dog to Penny, hurrying her conversations (he gave me the boot after a couple hour-and-a-half-long sessions) and not wanting her to wander too far. ââFor your own safety, because you get lost,â he says. And I say, âYes, but I always get found,ââ Penny says.
âIn the fullness of time,â as Penny Sisto often says, there is always understanding, reconciliation.
In the fullness of time, Sistoâs granny. When Granny â the only female member of a local working menâs club â died while Sisto was in the U.S., she was still in her menâs pants and big tweed hat from WMC the night before. Sheâd come home with a winning hand, a bottle of scotch and some sort of congestion that developed rapidly into the pneumonia that led to her death. Sisto got a call to come identify her body, but she didnât have the money to make the trip. Instead she received a shoebox wrapped in brown paper tied with string. In it: her grannyâs old watch that never did run, her 12 apostle spoons, her warm mock crocodile skin purse (which Sisto later used as the material for the womanâs shoes in a piece titled Vote), and the patch of the âtinkerâ Sisto made as a girl. âIâd assumed sheâd thrown it on the peat stove,â says Sisto, holding her first piece in her hands now. âBut she saved it. The root of everything I thought she disliked in me. Even the moth holes are precious.â Granny â who spoke no words of love but who came to Britain with little to nothing for three of Sistoâs births. âThat means more to me than, âIâm sorry,ââ Sisto says. âThat was action. That was Christ consciousness.â
In the fullness of time, her mother. It took Laine awhile to relax around Sisto after her partner died and she needed financial help. For nine years, Sisto would visit her agoraphobic mother on two-week stays in the 200-year-old stone cottage where she lived with her autistic son. âSheâd locked herself inside her own volition to feel safe,â Sisto says. âOf course, my way to feel safe is to expand outward instead of contracting in.â Laine prided herself on being ice. Laine was poor, so theyâd sleep in the same bed on those visits. âIâd make her laugh until sheâd cry,â Sisto says. âIâd tell her stories, about my kids.â
On her last visit, Sisto â remembering how Laine would turn up at family gatherings when she was a kid, but deny being her mother â prodded. âDo you think a day will come when you love me, Laine?â Sisto asked. And she says her mother replied, âNo, I donât think so. But Iâm very proud of Penny Sisto.â Sisto says, âI thought, âShit, thatâs no good.â But she was a woman of her word and thatâs precisely how she felt.â When Sisto went to leave that day â not realizing itâd be the last time â she says her mother turned to her and said, âLassie, you prate on about the meaning of life. Hereâs what life taught me: I was put on this earth for one purpose and one purpose only â to take care of wounded men.â A chill ran through Sisto, who tried to hug her mum, but sheâd already turned. In the cab, Sisto says she saw her motherâs tall figure looming in the window, her thin face pale and closed.
When Laine died, Sisto got a copy of her will, short enough to memorize. ââTo my son, I leave all my earthly goods. To the woman known as Penny Sisto, I return the gift she gave to me,ââ Sisto says. âI think thatâs the only time Iâve understood the phrase âmy knees trembled.â They shook so hard they couldnât support my body. As I sat with it, the gifts I gave her didnât mean the gas bills, the rent. Iâm sure it means the love, the laughter. I hope thatâs what she meant.â A lot of times, faces tumble over one another to be born in the studio surface as Laine, Sisto stitching the story new. In a recent Facebook post like poetry, Sisto writes: âLaine, wherever you went, wherever you go or reincarnate, may it be free of those wounded men. May it be filled with Mothering skies and whispers from all we who love you.â
In the fullness of time, her grandfather. When he died, she combed his thin hair, covered the soft folds of his manhood, touched his dank skin and wrapped him for the grave. She saw this man, her grandfather, her abuser, the one who turned family-tree branches into circles. âI was liquid compassion,â says Sisto, who thought about how much sorrow was buried with him. She shares this memory on Facebook, too, unashamed of the past. âWe have to live at peace with that, because we have no other option,â she says to me. âRegret and shame are useless emotions. Theyâll hold you back instead of propelling you forward.â
The teepee is on its dying legs. The climate kills the teepee skin in four or five years and the next will be its 10th reincarnation. âThe places I feel safest have no corners,â Sisto says. Hence the teepee, the yurt and the sweat lodge in her backyard. Traditionally, the teepee represents the inside of a motherâs womb, the opening like a canal from which to enter and exit.
Sisto has delivered most of her grandkids in the sacred space, with its hollowed middle for a fire and poles that reach high to the sky. In the black dark she visits the teepee, where she says a mouse or a raccoon might come sit with her. An owl likes to visit. One time she was still in her goony gown and looked up to see an owlâs eyes reflecting in the candlelight. She said, âDo you have a message for me?â Then: âI know this is really American, but will you stay here for a moment while I wake my husband to take a photo?â In the last pictures, the owl, which walked around for at least an hour, let Sisto hold her. Then it flew away. Sisto isnât sure why the animals come to her. âI think itâs because I donât have a strong sense of identity. I want to be invisible and empty, so I try to keep everything really empty inside. I think the animals sense that,â she says.
Sometimes when sheâs praying, she canât get her thoughts to stop tumbling over each other. Random broken threads tangle around. She thinks about how, despite her big, loving family, despite the animals and visions, sheâs ultimately alone. She thinks about a necessary rain after a long drought, how she hopes Earth can shake off humanityâs mistakes so the children can sprout. She thinks of the honeycomb of time and moves through it like a bee, like a needle through fabric.
Her old bones commiserate with the teepee old bones. âI tell my kids, âWhen I die, you must lay me in here, but donât let the raccoons eat me, because thatâd be creepy,ââ she says. Parks knows her mother is at peace with dying. âShe has said multiple times in the past two years (that) all she wants is to create art, do yoga and prepare to die,â she says. âItâs a beautiful way to live your life knowing that you have nothing left unsaid.â Sisto works more quickly than ever before, with less sleep, less food. Her body â which has withstood two bouts of cancer â shrinks smaller and smaller as she sews and sews in the studio. She has been prepping for her next show, âBlessings,â up this month at St. Paulâs Episcopal Church in New Albany. She laughs, thinking about how Father Rick Kautz â who promotes arts at the church â knows sheâll, in her words, âshit on the title.â But Kautz says the title is perfect for Sisto, who sees blessings all around her. âItâs not asking God, âIf I do the right thing, will you bless me?ââ Kautz says. âWe have to attune. Itâs what Penny does in her work. She sees blessings in the birds, the owl. She talks about God in a bigger-than-denominational way.â
When Sisto has stitched her last stitch, woven the last bits of her life together, leaving threads in the many lives she has touched, even if for only a moment, she wants her body burned and returned to the ocean. Ashes to salt. Sisto, who doesnât feel much physical fear, sometimes still canât believe sheâs this far inland, and she has the gut-pull to be in the place that taught her wisdom. Each year she saves all her spare money from her art to support a family trip to a giant beach house in Navarre Beach, Florida, where the family listens and laughs and stretches and sings and swims in the ocean, in the stars. When Penny Sisto dies, she wants her kids to walk away and forget her, to which they all reply, Oh, mom!
âIn the fullness of time youâll see, that is how you honor your mother,â Sisto says. âBy listening to her wisdom.â By letting her turn back into bird, into breeze.
This originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline âIn the Fullness of Time.â To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find us on newsstands, click here.
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