Julie Peppito‘s visceral and imaginative installations refer to our ecological, cultural, and political environments through explosive colors, textured surfaces, and interconnected loopy forms. Julie Peppito recalls how growing up in Oklahoma and later moving to NYC impacted her development as an artist. She shares some of her thought process, her work as an activist, and some of her projects.
Julie Peppito: My experience growing up in Oklahoma was sandwiched in-between two New York influences. My parents moved to Tulsa, OK from Lynbrook, NY just before I was born in 1970. I was a 100% Oklahoman from birth until I was 18, then I moved to New York City to go to college and have been here ever since.
As a kid I did suburban-middle-America-southern things. I soaked up mall culture, fashion magazines, was a gymnast and a cheerleader, went to horse camp and Baptist day camp, camped at lakes and went to church. Tulsa is known as “the buckle of the Bible Belt” and I was deeply familiar with it though not indoctrinated into the conservative Christian and Baptist ideology that it references. However, my parents were devout Catholics and much of my childhood revolved around our Catholic church, the Church of the Resurrection.
Having to go to church every Sunday when I was a kid felt so boring, but when I got there I spent the whole time drawing the altar (so it was tolerable). I would draw the giant appliqué banner of a mother and child and the hammered bronze triangular bodies and circular heads of the Apostles with Jesus.
It was a very liberal church, which in hindsight seems strange since it was in such a conservative part of the country. My sisters and I were all altar girls, something unheard of in a traditional Catholic church. Every Christmas we decorated a giant tree with socks, hats and gloves for the poor. Our church also created an outpost in a strip mall dedicated to feeding and clothing the poor. I would hang out there for hours and make sculptures out of sugar cubes (and then eat them) while my mom volunteered. Although I rejected Catholicism when I was twelve, I learned in the Catholic church two tenets that still guided me, “Love thy neighbor’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The fact that the church I went to didn’t just pay lip service to these beliefs, had a profound effect on me and consequently on my art.
Other aspects of growing up in Tulsa were also formative. As a small child I made tiny boats out of sardine cans, toothpicks and paper and sailed them in tributaries of water I poured in the roots of the giant pecan trees in the playground behind our house. I would get absorbed for hours in drawing, sewing, making beaded jewelry and constructing objects out of clay and found things. In high school I spent hours at thrift stores and flea markets searching through junk, toys, and vintage fashions for inspiration and raw material for sculptures. I developed a love for the Americana (and the fashions) I found and began to question why things get thrown away.
I applied to The Cooper Union for college, got in, and was so excited to be with “my people” reveling in making art all day and living in New York City.
AS: What was your experience at Cooper?
Julie Peppito: My experience was quite the opposite of what I was expecting. The school was hyper critical and my art making style was not appreciated (to say the least). At Cooper I learned that what I was making was not “Art” it was “craft”. I learned that my work was “process oriented” which was the opposite of the hard-edged minimal conceptual art or thrown together installations, popular at the school and in the New York art world at the time. It seemed that no matter what it looked like, if you could talk about it for an hour and reference Derrida, it was valid. That was not my forte.
For many years after, I struggled to re-find my internal compass, to be the crafty confident free spirit I was as a child in Tulsa. That part of me is all still there in my work, but it is mixed with an edge that came from living in New York. Granted part of this schism is the loss of innocence that comes from the jump from childhood to adulthood, but mine was sharpened by the move from South to North. My mind has opened wide here by interactions with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
AS: You also describe in the interview I mentioned how early on you loved the fiber work of Joyce Scott and disliked the work of artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. What is your take on that from your vantage point today?
Julie Peppito: When my art teacher in high school gave me an assignment to make a political or social statement, she showed me Holtzer and Kruger. I was frustrated because I thought I had to make a political or social statement in the same way they did – also, I didn’t like being forced to say something in my work. Ironically this assignment was a precursor to my experience at The Cooper Union, where I got the message that using clay, sewing, and paint wasn’t art, that it was a less important. Joyce Scott’s art wasn’t even part of the discussion because she wasn’t considered to be part of the “Fine” art canon at the time.
I had first seen Joyce Scott’s work at Philbrook Museum in Tulsa. “Jonestown Massacre” was clearly a political piece, but expressed in a language that I wanted to get lost in. The bead work combined with stitched plastic, photographs and chicken bones made me want to learn about the subject matter. This is the kind of political art I wanted to make, art that draws you in on a level outside of language. Eventually I began to combine ideas from Holtzer, Kruger and Scott, along with other art influences. But I still favor the work of Joyce Scott and it angers me that she has not received the notoriety of the other two artists. I’m glad that has changed somewhat in recent years.
AS: Tell me about your work in “Nature, Fashion & War,” from 2018.
Julie Peppito: Ten of the works in “Nature, Fashion and War” were originally made for an exhibit curated by China Marks in Florida at The Ruth Funk Center for Textile Art (only seven were shown there). I used the language of fashion by layering netting, lace, trimmings, satins and patterns with stitched together bundles of old toys, clothing, plumbing and other debris to create non-linear narratives that question why some things are considered fashionable (or valuable) and others are not. The tapestries drew connections between the human desire to want more of everything versus the destructive impact our consumerism has on the environment and the survival of our species. Many pieces were based on articles by Sharon Lerner of The Intercept about how Dow Chemical, Dupont and other corporations have poisoned our water, air and soil. That exhibit was in 2016.
Later that year I woke up to the nightmare that we are still living. I had become an activist when we invaded Iraq on a false pretense in 2003. In 2017, I was at a new level of rage and despair. I read everything I could to help me understand what exactly was happening, why it was happening, and what to do about it. I read Naomi Klein’s book “No is Not Enough” and I decided I needed to do everything I could within my wheelhouse (and outside of it) to transform our politics. I created fifty giant eyes to bring to the first Women’s March in DC to elevate the presence of the people and let 45 know we are not going away. I created art for the DC Climate March and NY Science March (and many more marches since then).
After I read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer and learned how the radical right wing billionaire Koch brothers had created a network and systems to take over our country, I wanted to focus on the hidden influences that were controlling Trump’s policy. I also thought it was important for all of us New Yorkers, who are expat middle Americans, to reach out to our roots and see how we could affect change out of our bubble. I had recently made a piece about Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick for administrator of The Environmental Protection Agency who had sued the EPA 13 times, is a climate change denier and was in the pocket of the oil and gas industry. I knew he lived in Tulsa, OK, my hometown. I decided to apply for an exhibit at Living Arts a non-profit art venue there. My proposal included the tapestries from 2016 and I was awarded a show. After being awarded the show I spoke with the director about including the Pruitt piece, a piece I had planned about the Koch brothers, and watercolor flowers with word balloons that said, “Please Help”, and a large installation called “Wake Up”. I wanted people to wake up to the connections between our desire for more clothes and other “cheap” things (fashion and goods) and the destruction (war) we were reeking on the planet (nature).
AS: What can you share about “Her Turn.”
Julie Peppito: I began working in charcoal as a release from all of the labor involved in the tapestries and also as a way of translating the narrative elements drawn in pencil on my small sewn drawings to a much larger scale. I have also been looking at Kathe Kollwitz a lot since the Pruitt piece I made in which I referenced Kollwitz’s “Mothers”. “Her Turn” is actually a reproduction of a segment of my large-scale piece about the Koch brothers. There were so many parts of that piece that it was hard to focus on each of them, so I have duplicated parts and made them into smaller drawings. It has been an experiment for me to see if I can resist the compulsion to sew or sculpt onto my 2D work. It seems that I can.
AS: Your drawings have a strong narrative element. What is your approach to narrative in your work?
Julie Peppito: An old friend of mine used to say, “You can make meaning out of anything.”
I collect images and objects that I like and then question myself about why I’m drawn to them. What story are they it telling me? While I work, I listen to the news (mostly WNYC and WBAI / Democracy Now!) and read the work of investigative reporters or histories that counter the dominant narrative. My process is a mix of intuitive and premeditated, or rather post-mediated.
I pick up an object and think about the emotion or symbolic reference it represents to me. For example, a pink plastic horse is loaded with meaning. It was probably made in China and the workers and the environment were probably mistreated in its making, it is a toy for American children, it reads as feminine (pink traditionally perceived as weak) and strong (horse), and symbolizes nature (horse), but as a plastic horse it symbolizes the degradation of nature. If the pink plastic horse is bound up with cords like an insect stuck in a web, next to a velvet painting of a dark haired, dark eyed traditionally beautiful woman (probably Latina) then what story is it telling? If I cut the whole piece into a vaguely oval shape and run fancy thick burgundy fringe around the edge and call the piece “Throwaway Rug”, what does that mean?
The story is already in the objects so when I combine them, they speak to each other about their pasts. The same happens with images. The people or patterns I am drawn to all have a history to tell. I throw those histories together intuitively then look at what I have created and sometimes bend the narrative to match a political or social narrative I want to tell. At times the complete narrative comes out of the objects without me consciously influencing it, often I find these are the most moving pieces. However, as with the Pruitt and Koch pieces, I sometimes begin with a vague narrative then start throwing premeditated, loaded imagery together and add bits of completely intuitive elements later.
AS: Your work associates for me with childhood, not in a nostalgic sense but rather as a bold presence. You also design Playgrounds. What is your take the element of “childhood” in your art and design work?
Julie Peppito: Having a kid undeniably influenced my work. But I would say it had these qualities long before I had a kid. My first playground was made before I had him. I’m not sure where this tendency comes from. Only that reflecting on it now, I can guess that I felt strongest when I was a kid. And perhaps I am telling that story to myself. Perhaps I am trying to find that Julie again. I was self-assured and confident in ways that I have still not regained. I was free from the weight of the world and secure in my voice. I was lucky and privileged though I didn’t realize it. I guess I am nostalgic for that bold presence. I will say though that I feel that I am finding her again.
AS: Where do you see your work going from here?
Julie Peppito: After resisting making political and social statements in my past, I now find myself wanting to be blunt and outrageous with my messages at times. I have been thinking of reversing the idea of bringing agitprop inspired political art into my studio and into the gallery as I did with the Pruitt and Koch pieces.
What would it look like for me to bring my studio art into the street? And how would it be different? I keep thinking about bringing the Kollwitz inspired style of charcoals to a protest. But that requires a lot of logistics that haven’t figured out yet since I will need to take into consideration the weather, the weight and the ease of carrying.
I am also still working on refining my “product” art. For a long time I was wrapped up in the romanticism that I was taught, that I wasn’t supposed to make things to go over people’s couches. But, my mom just downsized into a one-bedroom apartment from a three-bedroom two-car garage house. She needs a special piece of art to go over her couch and I agreed that all of the things I’ve made for her are too damn depressing. We still need beauty and serenity in our lives, we need it in order to cope with all of the horror and to keep us going. We must keep struggling for justice and keep loving. I am working on both in my life and my art.