Family Portraits: Kathryn Pennepacker

Full disclosure: Kathryn Pennepacker is a neighbor and friend of mine. Because she is laidback and unassuming, I had no idea she was such an accomplished artist until I saw her picture on the cover of American Craft magazine. I just knew that Kate makes a killer salad and is always ready to pitch in with neighborhood projects. A textile/visual artist, Pennepacker began doing tapestry work in the ’80s.

Since then, Pennepacker has been working, studying and teaching around the globe. She’s known for incorporating unusual materials — from Q-tips to matches — into her pieces. A number of her community projects, such as “Wall of Rugs 2,” encouraged area residents to participate. As she stated in the American Craft interview, “A lot of murals in town are painted on parachute cloth in an artist’s studio and then attached to the wall—‘parachuted’ into the community,” she explains. “There’s a remarkable transformation in those neighborhoods when that happens, but for me, there is something about being at the same intersection day in and day out — working, talking and interacting with people and really getting the time, attention and commitment, the dedication, focus and interest of the neighborhood. There is this whole human interaction. No pretense. We’re all just showing up doing our thing. I am just doing my thing, weaving and painting.”

PGN: Where are you originally from? KP: I was born and raised in Cheltenham. Wait, no, I’m lying. I was born in Maple Glen, lived in Ft. Washington and then raised in Cheltenham. All within the Philadelphia public school system. I have a joined family: a brother and sister with my mom and dad, a sister from my mom and stepfather and two sisters and a brother from my dad and stepmother. My parents were great, just very different from each other, so we had a brief period of drama and custody disputes, etc. But fast-forward and we all get along — sibs, halves and parents. And through it all there was always plenty of love and support.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? KP: Since I was born, everyone called me Kim, though it’s on my birth certificate as Kathryn, named after my mom and [grandmother] mimi. When I moved out to Berkeley to apprentice and do the poetry-reading circuit, I started to go by Kathryn — never Kathy. Interestingly enough, our neighbors took to calling me Kate, as did folks in Poland when I was there. I like that too. So, little Kim kept to herself a lot. I had a cozy reading corner I created by the heat vent where I loved to hang out and read, draw, nap, listen to music. I think our cat takes after me with hanging out by the heat vent.

PGN: Were you sporty? KP: [Blushes.] I was sort of a basketball star in high school and I played a little softball. I don’t know, I was the kind of girl who wore dashikis in school one day, my basketball uniform the next and the following day I would look all preppy. I think I wasn’t quite sure of myself. In fact for a while, I even became a born-again Christian. I probably used youth group as a way to escape the drama at home.

PGN: Was the family religious? KP: My father’s a good guy, traditionally Catholic, and my mom’s more of a “see God in everyone” kind of person — Hinduism, Shavism, that sort of thing. I’m kind of pot luck with religion now — a little of this, a little of that.

PGN: So you went from born again to being a big old lesbian? KP: Well, I fell in love with a woman in college and I knew I was gay for sure after that first kiss. It took a little adjusting for my family; my father asked if I was ac/dc. Mostly, they wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a phase like the born-again thing. But they always encouraged me to do whatever made me happy. I remember talking to a gay friend of the family and saying I didn’t want to talk about the birds and the bees, but the birds and the birds and the bees and the bees. Now as adults, we’re still really good friends.

PGN: How did you meet your partner, Diane? KP: A mutual friend introduced us. We spoke on the phone for several weeks and then arranged to meet at a place called The Taco House. It was rainy and I got there early and several women came in, I don’t know why, but I kept thinking, “Oh man, I hope it’s not her” and started having second thoughts. Then Diane walked in and we felt the connection right away. We’ve been together for about eight years now. We refer to one another as “GG” — God’s gift.

PGN: How did you get interested in your field? KP: When I was in fifth grade, we learned how to do macramé knots in school. Instead of making the plant hangers we were supposed to, I started making wall pieces. Later on, I got more interested in writing and went to Penn State majoring in English. I’d been taking art classes all along and one of my advisors said, “You know, if you get one more credit in art, you’ll have a minor.” I took a one-credit weaving class and, that was it, I discovered my love.

PGN: You studied traditional French tapestry, but your work seems very abstract. KP: Yes, among other things, I studied with Jean Pierre Larochette, a third-generation French tapestry weaver. What was nice about my apprenticeship is that I learned all the proper techniques and the rules and structure of how to weave pictorial tapestry. Now I try to incorporate both, which can be a little crazy-making, but I’ve always been curious about materials and material as a metaphor so, after I got the training, I pulled out the stops and explored working with different materials in my weaving, like plastic bags and matches, etc.

PGN: You traveled to Tokyo as well? KP: Yes; after France, I really felt strong about doing community art and socially conscious art and I got an opportunity to go to Japan. They invited a number of artists from different mediums and wanted us to learn about and incorporate the culture into our works. As an artist, it was aesthetically altering. Tokyo is a really frenetic metropolis but with a really peaceful way of being that exists side by side with each other. I see a lot of that happening in my own personal work, a combination of traditional technique and then breaking those rules and pushing boundaries.

PGN: What was a great memory from that trip? KP: Climbing a hill in Japan nearby a temple, resting on the grass looking up at the sky and 20 to 30 or more black birds circling high above me. Quietly watching birds at the pagoda … wowsy.

PGN: Tell me about Handmade by the Homeless. KP: It’s a weaving project that Leslie Sudock and I began in a homeless shelter. We taught people to crochet, knit, sew, embroider and weave on a loom. It’s moved around, but now we have a gallery at 626 South St. It’s a beautiful storefront where people can come in and see us work and purchase handloomed winter scarves.

PGN: What are some of the challenges working with the homeless project? KP: Trying to create consistency. We’re working with people whose lives are up in the air. They sometimes don’t know where they’re going to be or what’s going to happen next. We want to try to create a place that’s peaceful and dependable. Weaving seems to be very therapeutic and grounding for people whose lives are full of disruption. People tell me they feel like there’s a place where they belong and where they can be respected and make a difference. And interestingly, I often hear that they feel visible here. Hopefully, we’ll be able to stay in this space for some time.

PGN: I understand that the shelter closed during the project, rendering both the project and the participants homeless. KP: Yes. But it didn’t stop us. We left the loom outside locked to a bike rack and people from the project came by and continued weaving.

PGN: That’s amazing. Were you surprised that no one vandalized or stole the equipment? KP: No. I’m an optimist. We’d established relationships with a lot of people over the course of the project, and people were very protective of it. I felt like there were a lot of angels around taking care of the loom. It was funny: Friends of mine would come up to me and say, “Was that your loom chained to a bike rack across from the food distribution center?”

PGN: How do you work with so many divergent personalities, many of them who have troubled backgrounds? KP: I treat people with as much integrity and dignity as possible, and expect the best of them. I really try to establish a level of professionalism. We had one guy in the other day and his feet really smelled, so I got him a clean pair of socks. The only problem was he took his old socks and put them behind the couch. I gave him hell about it but tried to do it with a sense of humor. I want them to have a sense of pride in their work. We have one guy, Robert, who has been a crazy mad-dash weaver. He loves it and flies through the pieces like he’s in a race. I have to slow him down and give him some tough love. I’ll tell him, “People may buy your first scarf out of sympathy for the cause, but you want them to buy the second scarf because the workmanship was well done. So slow down, look at your edges and don’t be sloppy.” I try to always look at people as if they could be my mother or my brother or my sister and it keeps me from being afraid to engage. It’s how I can work with people in prison, with homeless people or even live in the ’hood where I built my home.

PGN: You seem to be such a quiet person, even a bit shy, and yet you’re out there doing lectures and speeches … KP: It is pretty dichotomous, isn’t it? I feel outgoing and yet am so introverted. I think of it sometimes as being invisible and yet invincible. It’s a strange way of being. I just love to sit on my steps in my city, in my neighborhood and be completely anonymous and yet I love chatting it up with people, both those that I know and don’t know. But you’re right, as interactive as I like to be with people, I kind of really like to be alone. The other day, for example, was the kick-off for Design Week in Philadelphia. It’s a big extravaganza and they have all sorts of events happening. They were setting up at the Kimmel Center and I went down there by myself early in the morning and just started putting up shag tags near the festivities. Here at the gallery, I’m social and in charge and, there, I was just quietly doing my own thing. [At this point, we are interrupted by one of the participants who needs Pennepacker to speak to his case manager.]

PGN: What’s a shag tag? KP: It’s a small shag rug that I create to “tag” fences. Kind of like graffiti artists but with fabric. I’ve been putting them around the city, primarily on abandoned plots, parking lots and empty buildings. [We are interrupted again by an enthusiastic young man who wants to tell Pennepacker about his art projects.]

PGN: Where do you get your patience? KP: My father was a florist and I think seeing him work with the flowers was inspiring. With my mom and step-dad, there were always common standards in the house of compromise and flexibility. Listening to one another was very important and we had regular family conferences. I think whatever patience I have was modeled through that.

PGN: I saw an invitation for igniting and cutting-off parties. What’s that about? KP: [Laughs.] Well, every once in a while, I like to set my weavings on fire. Some of my weavings are done with matches. I did a whole Peace Project and one of the metaphors was “Set our Hearts on Fire for Peace.” I treat the outside of the tapestry with a flame retardant so it wouldn’t burn and got a group of people together. I wrote a poem about peace that we read before setting the piece on fire. It’s a way of taking a moment to reflect on what we’re doing in the world and figuring out how we can make a difference. Cutting off is a French tradition going back centuries. Some tapestries took years to make, sometimes with four people working at once. When it was finished, they gathered the patrons, families, the weavers and designers and passed the scissors around to cut it off the loom. So we’ll do the same thing and invite everyone involved to come. It’s another way to bring people together. PGN: OK, random questions. Did you have a blankie or stuffed animal? KP: I was told by my sister and Diane not to answer that. But I did: I had a stuffed panda. I still have it. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

PGN: Do you keep a journal? KP: Oh yeah, I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. In fact, about 10 years ago when we were moving, I must have pulled out about 30 old journals. They’re filled with all that emotional journey bullshit you write about when you’re young.

PGN: Whose diary would you like to read? KP: I’d be curious to read President Obama’s journal. Just because, my God, the stuff on his plate is crazy. I don’t know how he does it.

PGN: When did you become a motorcycle mama? KP: About nine years ago I got a scooter. I was using it to haul my mural paints and it was getting beat up. My mechanic finally said, “This is the kind of bike you use to go to movies and to buy bon-bons. You’re riding it like a bike, so get a real bike!” So I got a motorcycle.

PGN: If you could time travel, would you rather go back to the past or forward to the future? KP: Probably back to, no forward to … hmmn. Man, you’re killing me. I was raised with two Gestalt therapists, my mom and stepdad. And so I’m constantly thinking of all angles of a question and it’s hard to settle on one answer. I’m always thinking of other ways of thinking or answering a question and curious about the other person’s point of view.

PGN: [Laughs.] Well, that’s probably what makes you good at interacting with different people and able to connect with them despite your shyness. That Gestalt empathy. KP: You might be right!

Pennepacker will participate in an artist talk with fellow grant recipient Wolfie E. Rawk from 5:30-7 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Leeway Foundation, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 832.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].