Sue Scott Gallery

A Family Portrait, in Crochet and Shoelaces

Margo Nash
The New York Times, August 2005

Whistler painted his mother in oil. Rodin did a bust of his father in bronze. Sheila Pepe, an artist from Morristown, created a family portrait in shoelaces and nautical tow line.

Her installation, “Tunnel,” is symbolic. Made from 24 feet of crocheted shoelaces attached to a 13–foot tow line, it is connected by hooks to the ceiling and walls of the atrium at the Jersey City Museum, and resembles a tunnel as well as a ferry about to dock.

“This is my way of giving homage to my family,” said Ms. Pepe, 46, who lives in New York City. She teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

The shoelaces, she said, are for her grandfather Carmine Pepe, an Italian immigrant who settled in Morristown and opened a shoe repair shop there. The crochet work is for all the women in her family who crocheted. The tunnel is for her uncle, Augustine Nigro, who helped build the Holland Tunnel, and the ferry is for his wife, Eleanor, who traveled across the Hudson River by ferry to a Manhattan slipper factory until she became a mother.

“When I think of all the hard work they did, they put us all to shame,” Ms. Pepe said. “They worked without much complaint, actually with a lot of joy. They got up every morning and did their job, and the next generation lives through that legacy to do something more.”

Ms. Pepe has done more with crocheting and shoelaces, often combining them with other elements to create works that have been displayed in solo exhibitions in New York; San Francisco; Turin, Italy, and elsewhere. Her work is in the collections of the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Goldman Sachs in New York and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.

There was a time when Ms. Pepe did not consider crocheting worthy of inclusion in her work. “I was one of those young people who got on a bus from New Jersey and went to MOMA in awe of what was possible,” she said. “I aspired to New York Modernism and high art.”

After graduating from Bayley-Ellard High School in Madison, she earned a B.A. from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, a B.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art and an M.F.A from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“I pursued what I thought at the time were higher aims,” Ms. Pepe said, yet she kept putting bits of crocheted materials in her assemblages. After a while, she said, “I realized I had to pay more attention to it.”

And she did. Some of her crocheted pieces, which are combined with other structural elements, have been as large as 80 feet by 35 feet. She has also made crocheted memorials to her mother, Josephine (who taught her to crochet), and her father, Frank, who owned a deli in Morristown. His included drawings of the meatballs her mother made helping out in the deli.

Though her personal history helped inspire “Tunnel,” Ms. Pepe said she also wanted to honor the new immigrants trying to establish themselves, just as her family did.

“One of the greatest things about being in New Jersey and New York is the constant arrival of people who have dreams,” she said.