On the Town

The Fabric of Life

At DiverseWorks, gallery-goers interact with art—and LGBTQ issues—in a whole new way.

By Steve Jansen May 31, 2016 Published in the June 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Sheila Pepe, Put me down gently, 2014

Sheila Pepe’s ethereal fiber installations have hung from gallery ceilings high and low across the globe, from Boston and New York to Italy and the Republic of Georgia, and everywhere she’s gone, she’s invited the public to interact with her art in ways that would get a gallery-goer kicked out elsewhere.

Since 1999, the Brooklyn-based, cross-disciplinary artist and arts educator has employed an expert’s hand at weaving improvisational crochet artworks, which drape from the rafters, creating three-dimensional daydreams. Viewers are encouraged to touch, and even sit on, the kinetic dollops of yarn, shoelace material and other offbeat fabrics that Pepe acquires from industrial and Army surplus shops.

With her first solo show in Houston, Pepe, the former assistant chair of fine arts at the Pratt Institute and a go-to academic for lesbian feminism scholarship, will take her inclusive endeavors one step further in Put Me Down Gently: A Place to Be at DiverseWorks. Her new installation will feature rugs, pillows and fabric seats, creating an open meeting space that will play host to a series of performances, artist talks and public programs on LGBTQ identity and race issues.

“I’m … creating a place to meet, hang out, and sit in so that people can talk about these things,” says the soft-spoken Pepe. “I’m bringing the textiles back to their original intention and making them utilitarian. In an abstract way, the work is an amalgamation of different parts of my identity.”

The show, of course, is timely. “Her practices really speak to what’s happening in Houston in terms of changes that have happened, especially with HERO,” says DiverseWorks executive director and chief curator Xandra Eden, who put together the exhibition with curator Rachel Cook.

Sondra Perry, Houstonian and artist in residence at the Museum of Fine Arts CORE program, is expected to perform in the space this summer. Pepe met Perry in the summer of 2013 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and knew she’d found a kindred spirit in the video and performance artist, who’s also traveled the world with her work, from Brooklyn to Berlin.

Despite the installation serving as a platform from which to discuss important issues, Pepe emphasizes that its primary purpose is to function as art—not necessarily social commentary. “If you let yourself succumb,” says Pepe, “it’s a fantastical environment that’s abstract and fun.”

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