Her Italian-American mother taught Sheila Pepe to crochet when she was 7, and for about 30 years – as she honed her visual art skills – that was her secret.

“There was a 30-year gap because you wouldn’t have caught me dead crocheting,” says the New York artist/educator in an Institute of Contemporary Art-Boston video, “and then I began to do it at a time when I was being called a conceptual artist, which made sense …”

With her degrees from Massachusetts College of Fine Arts and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Pepe was absorbed, creating conceptual installations with electricity, light and shadow. “So when I began to crochet, I said, ‘I am crocheting. Now, is that conceptual art?’ ” she says with a chuckle. “And I think the answer was silently, ‘No.’”

Nevertheless, Pepe has taken the feminist legacy of her mother and grandmother and woven together dozens of solo, duo and group exhibitions from New York to Florida and abroad, using what she calls “improvisational crochet” technique to mesh shoelaces, yarn, nets, nautical tow line, rubber bands – anything that can be crocheted, knitted or sewn.

Pepe will share her artistic vision – conceptual and crocheted, personal and monumental – with the campus community and public Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Ball Hall Auditorium, Room 127. A reception from 5-7 p.m. precedes the talk and occurs simultaneously with a gallery talk by Michael Fischerkeller, whose work is currently on exhibit in Slocumb Gallery.

“Sheila’s art connects perfectly with our string theme this season,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “She is a well-established visual artist coming here from New York to talk with us about her unique works in improvisational crochet and to also work with students while she is on campus. We have been attempting to schedule her for a number of years now and are so glad it has worked out this spring.”

The improvisation happens as Pepe crafts a vision, carefully selects materials from her favorite small businesses and begins crocheting, but then lets the spaces – ceilings, balconies, staircases – mold the works that she puts together in place. One installation, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, actually moved as the gallery’s elevator rose and fell.

And crochet is the perfect medium for Pepe’s creations. She considers them “drawn” with the shoelaces, rope or string. “The crochet hook … crocheting is just a perfect enterprise because it’s one tool in variable directions,” Pepe said in preparing for her Red Hook installation at Smith College in 2008. “You can go line. You can go volume. You can just drive it around in any which way and I like that mutability.”

For information about the artist talk or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587).