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Penny Sisto’s Fancy Shawl Dance

Penny Sisto (b. 1941), Fancy Shawl Dance, 2011, Mixed media (Silk, Tibetan coat, Chinese shawl, tablecloth, lamé, ribbons, brocade, tin horns, horse hair, other fabrics, fabric dye, silk dye, and paint), 59 x 61 in., Gift of the artist 2022.015.001

Scottish-born Penny Sisto (b. 1941) is a celebrated artist in New Albany and the Carnegie Center for Art & History. Last year, she celebrated an eighth exhibition at CCAH, Penny Sisto at 80. For the past 34 years, Sisto created an estimated 100 plus quilts per year in her woodland cabin bordering the Mount St. Francis Monastery in Floyds Knobs, IN. In addition to her local esteem, Sisto is internationally recognized, including a grouping of Holocaust quilts at the Gatehouse of Auschwitz and a selection of her slavery series quilts displayed at the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds, England, in 2008.

Sisto’s life is full of stories that can fill many books. She created her first quilt at seven from scraps of fabric stolen from her grandmother. At 19, she moved to Edinburgh with her first child in her womb. She worked in a clothing factory that fired her for her “sloppy sewing.” At 26, Sisto joins the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)–the British equivalent of the Peace Corps–and moves to a Maasai village in Kenya as a volunteer midwife for the British Ministry of Overseas Development in Africa. While living in the Maasai village with her three oldest children, she made art that she sold to a local hotel. At the same time, Sisto learned about the Maasai lifestyle, dress, and practices present in her later work. While in Kenya, she meets an American working for the Peace Corps, who she marries, and fathers her younger children. Sisto follows him to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1970. The following year, Sisto drives across the country with her family to live in Ananda Village, a spiritual community in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. She opens a free health clinic here and meets meditation teacher and jazz musician Richard Sisto. After years of abuse from her husband against her and her children, Sisto flees California to join Richard Sisto in New Haven, Kentucky, establishing a dairy farm in 1979. Ten years later, she rehomes to her current residence in the woods bordering Mt. St. Francis Monastery in Floyds Knobs, Indiana. They moved and built a cabin with a studio for Sisto, a separate music building for Richard, and eventually a tipi, sweat lodge, and yurt. This timeline is a short connection of moments that brought Penny Sisto to Indiana. In 2011 Sisto showcased her fifth solo exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art & History, titled Heartbeats: Art Quilts by Penny Sisto. In this exhibition, Sisto explores her interest in Native American history and culture. In her artist statement for Heartbeats, she writes:

 “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.”

Among the works in Heartbeats is Sisto’s Fancy Shawl Dance (2011), now on view in From Audubon to Sisto: Highlights from the Permanent Collection. Fancy Shawl Dance portrays three women dancing in what is called a Fancy Shawl dance–a relatively new style created by Native American Women to express the same enthusiasm and style as men’s Fancy Dance. This two-step dance requires boldly colored cloth, often fully beaded yoke, hair clips, wrist cuffs, bracelets, and moccasins. The shawl is essential to the outfit containing a pattern and long ribbons flowing off the fabric, which serves as a centerpiece for the ensemble and the dance. The dance is also known as the butterfly dance–the women move in graceful, swooping motions with their shawls hanging from their arms, creating the appearance of butterfly wings. Part of the dance requires the dancers to always hold out at least one of their arms because a butterfly isn’t seen without at least one wing aloft, as stated by We R Native.

On September 28, 2011, Penny Sisto shared stories about her artworks in Heartbeats with Anthony Redfeather Nava, who shared Native American stories and music related to the art exhibited. In discussing her Fancy Shawl Dance, she explains the connection to holes in the quilt, “Women are pierced from the outside inwards when we accept love, and from the inside outwards when we give birth.” These holes are associated with womanhood. In this work, she says she “wanted it to be woman moon, woman holes, and fabric that touched women from all kinds of life.” Looking at the quilt, she identifies a piece from the Hmong people, a Mexican tablecloth, Irish table linen, the round circle in the center was the top of a Muslim man’s hat, the rim that went around it, a textile that came back from Vietnam, a green Tibetan wedding robe from a Tibetan man she met in Santa Fe who just gave her his wedding robe, and, of course, one of her grandsons old Halloween costumes. See the image below identifying these items:

Anthony Redfeather Nava was taken by Fancy Shawl Dance, complimenting Sisto’s “artist view” because it is what you see in the dance, with the brightly dressed costumes. He reflected on the history of the dance, stating how recent the creation was, approximately from the 1930s-early 40s. It is a very fluid dance that is quick with ribbon work. He also notes his own history with the dance. He often dances with his adopted sister at powwows, and at one powwow, his sister dressed in fancy shawl, meaning he had to as well. He explored his inner fancy dancer and claimed a prize from the competition. His experience as a Native American dancer connected him to Sisto’s art.

Sisto herself described the women in this quilt as “women dancing like butterflies across its landscape.” Can you picture the butterflies?

Join us at the Carnegie Center for Art and History to see Penny Sisto’s Fancy Shawl Dance, on view until April 1st in From Audubon to Sisto, Highlights from the Permanent Collection


By: Sheridan Bishoff

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