Penny Sisto was born in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland. As a health worker for the British Ministry of Overseas Development, she utilized her skills as a midwife and aided in health clinics for the Maasai, LuBukusu and Kikuyu tribes of East Africa.
During this time, Penny combined the embroidery, applique and quilting techniques she learned from her grandmother with the beading and collage methods of her African friends.
Ms. Sisto says, “I have little or no formal education, my Granny taught me to sew and read by the soft light of a kerosene lantern at the age of three. The nuns taught me to embroider, the Maasai taught me to crochet, and to revel in color.
"My quits spring full-born into my mind. My task, if you will, is to allow my clumsy hands to make them manifest.
"My granny taught me quilting. Placing square against square in neat stacks to be sewn that night after the farm chores were done. Granny was stern, ‘Stitch and unpick, corners must be squared, and colors mixed dark and then light!’ - Even at seven I rebelled!”
Today, in her Floyds Knobs, Indiana Studio, Penny’s work continues at a more prolific pace than ever.
My world flew apart before I was five years old; the long years of childhood were spent in an effort both to survive and to stay sane.
The comfort and the stability came from the animals, the birds, the countryside, and the ocean around me. Most of all, I found strength in the art which I could create out of the materials at hand. Paint and pens were hard to come by, but the wet flat sands and a stick were perfect for me to draw my visions on.
My greatest treasure trove however was the large “big-bag” of fabric scraps owned by Granny. These scraps were a wonderland of bright color and softness.
I stitched my wildest fantasies from that bag of worn-soft cottons and faded wools and tweed… horses that flew, cows with golden horns and the tired beautiful faces of my family and neighbors… I felt somehow then, as I feel now, that I could stitch my fractured world back together again.
In the passing of years, the quilts grew, springing full-born into my mind, tumbling out faster than my clumsy fingers could stitch.
Anyone who knows my work knows that I am a lousy sewer! The seams pucker and twist like a wave on a rock, the sides ripple and swirl, and the colors, whoever heard of such combinations as I plop down next to each other? Here a scrap of $200 a yard antique French lace, there a tuft of polyester from a t-shirt begged from a passer by as I just “had” to have it for the quilt.
The images, the beings on my work haunt and whisper to me as I make them live. I learn sometimes things that only they can tell, as I sew the edges of their world. Some of the collectors who take them home with them tell me that they catch echoes, see the compassion in their quilted eyes, feel the warmth of their spirit…that is the fabric-world’s gift to me and mine to you, the people who look at my pieces.