Kathryn Pannepacker brings world traditions to the city of independence with her textile murals.
A loaded paintbrush in hand, the artist Kathryn Pannepacker crouches down and applies a black stroke to a steel panel. It’s a late afternoon in January, and it’s starting to snow. The welcoming glow of the Sunoco mini-mart and the car wash’s green neon signs cut through the gathering dusk. She finishes the touch-up on her Wall of Rugs #2 mural (Jordon now reads Jordan), rights her tall frame and surveys Philadelphia’s Broad and Lehigh Streets. Kitty-corner is the empty Botany 500 building, the apparel company’s brick edifice, a commemorative remnant of a once-booming garment district. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Philadelphia was famous for its textiles—silk hosiery, men’s suits and wool carpets.
Pannepacker knows this intersection well. Over summer and fall she worked daily on the 115-foot-long mural—each of the 18 diamond plate steel panels, which separate the roadway from the train tracks, represents a textile from a different country. Her Wall of Rugs #1, located on two corners at the intersection of Girard and Belmont Avenues, was completed in 2005. Five hundred feet long, the seven-foot-high hand-painted mural ambitiously features over 40 countries. Both artworks were commissioned and funded by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, an organization dedicated to making art accessible to a general public and the force behind the 2,800 murals that can be found dotting the city’s landscape.
North Philly is a gritty neighborhood, and a cold winter day amplifies a certain desolation. But beyond the debris and weathered buildings there’s life and a diverse culture. Pannepacker’s mural is not an urban ills cleanup campaign. Local stories are woven into the Wall of Rugs project. A Sunoco employee brought Pannepacker a photograph of an embroidered fabric from his native Bangladesh. Adam Alli, a West African artist who works long hours at the car wash, keeps an eye on the mural, and suggested Niger’s black-and-tan printed patterns. Designs from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Mongolia show up in Wall of Rugs #2, each linked to a person who stopped to talk to Pannepacker about her work. Used as floor or wall coverings, rugs have historically marked out space, both domestic and spiritual—nomadic tents lined with kilim carpets or cathedrals hung with tapestries. In Pannepacker’s hands, a global collection of rugs makes a windswept thoroughfare feel more like home.
“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.”
Weaving and painting, Pannepacker’s disciplines, are just as intertwined as are her murals within the community. Stressing technique, each mural has a panel that lists textile methods: tapestry, pile-knotting, quilting, felting and printing, among others. A “weaving” runs across the bottom of both Wall of Rugs murals: the white warp makes graphic stripes across the black background, the gray yarn wending out yards at a time. The frieze unifies the mural—the source country for each panel is written within the weaving—and it asserts her own identity as an artist, a weaver.
Pannepacker was trained in traditional French tapestry. While she took an occasional fiber arts class while she was an undergraduate studying English with an art minor at Penn State, it wasn’t until she arrived in Berkeley, California, in the late 1980s, a stint out west intended to spark her poetry career, that she took up weaving in earnest. A visit to California turned into a three-year apprenticeship under Jean Pierre Larochette, a tapestry weaver, and Yael Lurie, a designer. She sums up the transition with a quote from her mentor: “Jean Pierre said to me, ‘Why don’t you just be a weaver and lead an interesting life and write about it?’” Or, as she puts it: text morphed into textile.
Larochette comes from a family with roots in Aubusson, France, the city known for tapestries that were made for the royal family during the 17th century. Unlike more geometric weavings from the American Southwest or Peru, where the compositions are guided by the axial structure of the loom, Aubusson tapestries often begin as drawings and paintings. Pannepacker studied in Aubusson and that time allowed her to pursue painting as part of her practice. Tapestries take months to complete, and painting became for her a quick way to capture fleeting ideas and images.
In 1993, Pannepacker returned to Philadelphia, where she grew up, and wholeheartedly dove into mural painting. Watching
a group of neighborhood kids play one day in an abandoned parking lot, Pannepacker resolved to brighten the space by getting them involved in a mural on the surrounding low walls. After that she was hooked. To hone her technique, she apprenticed with Diane Keller, an established muralist. Some of the guerrilla tactics often involved in street painting have begun to appear in her weaving. This past year she’s embarked on a project that finds her leaving small four-by-four-inch weavings made out of jute and pipe cleaners around town. The Scatter Gather pieces follow her on her travels and are woven surreptitiously into balustrades and fences. In May she’ll take the project to Kansas City, Missouri. Late to register for Surface Design Association’s “Off the Grid” conference, Pannepacker decided to participate anyway and, like a graffiti writer with a can of spray paint, “tag” the streets of K.C.
There is always something provocative, even insistent, in Pannepacker’s artistic dialogue with the city—a demand to make a link between global politics and an activity generally associated with women’s work. Over the summer, during the heat of the presidential campaign, she set up a pipe loom on the street near where she was working on Wall of Rugs #2 and asked residents to help weave scavenged red, white and blue plastic bags into an American flag tapestry.
Nontraditional materials like Q-Tips, matchbooks and aluminum are frequently incorporated into Pannepacker’s work. They are used for both their aesthetics and message—especially the matches featured prominently in her Peace Project series—weavings with flags and icons from war-torn and conflicting countries: Sudan/Darfur, Israel/Palestine, United States/Iraq. In the series, hundreds of paper matches have been incorporated into two weavings entitled Ignite Our Hearts for Peace, which she created for the 2004 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
“I don’t think my work is really politically charged. It’s socially charged, it’s humanly charged,”says Pannepacker of Ignite Our Hearts for Peace and the Wall of Rugs project. As she painted the mural, she would occasionally chant a mantra or blessing over a textile design—appliqué patterns from Daghastan or Sierra Leone’s blue and rust geometries. “I represent countries as a way to hold an ongoing personal vigil,” she continues. “My aim is to reflect. It is not a large discourse, but my way to pay respect and give recognition to an individual and a culture.” This discussion, however, is not one-sided. Philadelphia’s urban context always exerts its own commentary. In the middle of the intricate red-and-black Palestine rug, a municipal warning sign reads: Danger. Live Wire. Keep Off.
Watch Kathryn show and discuss her work: