New Collections: Sonya Clark, Shelia Pepe, and Margaret Roach Wheeler Oral Histories

By Ben Gillespie
February 12, 2024
Sonya Taylor wears a colorful tank top, glasses, gold earrings with a blue stone, gold rings on each hand, and a blue hair wrap with a white dotted pattern. She sits in front of two closets with brown wooden doors with a tall stack of books between them, and a door next to the closets with a blue fabric square hanging on the wall. (detail)

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new collections. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue (vol. 62, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at

Sonya Taylor wears a colorful tank top, glasses, gold earrings with a blue stone, gold rings on each hand, and a blue hair wrap with a white dotted pattern. She sits in front of two closets with brown wooden doors with a tall stack of books between them, and a door next to the closets with a blue fabric square hanging on the wall.
Screenshot from video oral history with Sonya Clark, 2022.

Three new oral histories conducted remotely with trailblazers in the textile arts have entered the Archives, bolstering the stories of craft available to researchers. These interviews build on the robust craft foundation fortified by the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, comprised of 235 oral histories conducted between 2000 and 2012. In this new set of interviews, Sonya Clark grounds her fiber work in the human body as a historical and generative site, Sheila Pepe contextualizes craft within a sociopolitical landscape of upheaval, and Margaret Roach Wheeler unpacks weaving as a means to retain and extend Native American culture.

Speaking from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Clark (b. 1967) outlines the material, political, and personal impulses that limn her weaving. Through meaningful elements such as hair and traditional methods drawn from her African and Caribbean heritage, Clark resists conventional divisions between fine arts and craft, highlighting the racialized weight of such terms. “What is happening is that there’s this rarefication of what art is and who defines it. Most of that definition happened in Europe around the guild system, and so I’m pushing back at that all the time,” the artist explains. Her rejection of the craft-fine arts divide is rooted in her ethics, as she told interviewer Sam Adams, Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. As Clark puts it, “Craft to me . . . is a kind of essential human activity. When it’s denied, it’s . . . no different than denying someone’s script or someone’s language. . . .  I think it’s my responsibility to push what the definition of craft is.”

Interviewed in her Brooklyn home by John Corso-Esquivel, associate professor of art history at Davidson College, Pepe (b. 1959) untangles her long affairs with radical politics and radical craft. From the ritualization of gender that she witnessed during her childhood in the Catholic church to the efflorescence of lesbian communities from New England to Brooklyn, Pepe describes the rich diversity of families she has found and forged. Drawn to the subversive possibilities of ostensibly domestic craft, Pepe draws parallels between the labor of weaving and that of postwar painting in her installations, which are geared toward social gatherings and communal conversations. “When you see abstraction,” she told Corso-Esquivel, “you’re reading the maker’s body and trying to—as a maker, I’m trying to give you gestures that you can do too. You can crochet too. You can reach up to the sky too. You can crawl under this thing too. I want the playfulness, I want the viewer to get carried away in the movement as if they are doing it.”

Margaret Roach Wheeler sits in front of shelves with books and small framed works of art wearing glasses and a red, patterned shirt with a collar over a black tee shirt. She wears bangs and her hair is just below chin length. To her right is a room with shelves and a stool.
Screenshot from video oral history with Margaret Roach Wheeler, October 24, 2022.

From her home in Sulphur, Oklahoma, Wheeler (b. 1943; Chickasaw/Choctaw) recounts her life’s efforts to research, recuperate, and advance Native weaving traditions. In conversation with interdisciplinary scholar, writer, and curator Laura Marshall Clark (Muscogee Creek), Wheeler details the extensive archival and visual detective work that informs her understanding and replication of indigenous techniques that have been passed down through generations. In 2000, Wheeler held a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, where she conducted research into textiles produced by the Mississippi Mound Builders, predecessors of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. She reflects in the interview, “I could find out very little, but it was bast fiber, which means a plant fiber. We use the inner bark of mulberries, and the Mound Builders were the ancestors of the Chickasaw. That’s why I was researching them. They used—in the fibers themselves, there would be bird feathers—the fluff from the bird feathers. There were different kinds of plants that they would spin, and all natural products, of course. Rabbit fur is found in it, so it was a mixture of several things.” The results of that inquiry have been pivotal for Wheeler’s career as an artist, steward, and educator, especially as she reconstructs and reimagines tribal dress and decoration for new generations of Native Americans.

All three voices recorded by the Archives reveal craft as a mode to record and advance culture. These weavers interrogate putative conceptions of fiber art and its roles in heritage and communal belonging, nuancing the ways humans tell history by thread and by tale. Their interviews join a growing chorus at the Archives that illuminates the intricacy of craft as an expressive, essential art.


Ben Gillespie is the oral historian at the Archives of American Art.

Add new comment

Your name Fieldset
Subject Fieldset
Comment Fieldset

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.