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Through her Listening Loom, this Philly artist weaves the beauty of human connection

Sometimes, kindness can be a work of art.

Jimmy Flanagan, currently of Germantown and originally of Kensington, took a minute to chat with Artist Kathryn Pannepacker while also talking on FaceTime with a friend at the corners of Germantown and Chelten Avenues.
Jimmy Flanagan, currently of Germantown and originally of Kensington, took a minute to chat with Artist Kathryn Pannepacker while also talking on FaceTime with a friend at the corners of Germantown and Chelten Avenues.Read moreBastiaan Slabbers

James “Jimbo” Flanagan was returning home from a morning trip to a dollar store, chatting with his girlfriend on his phone, when he saw something he’d never seen before:

There, near the corner of Germantown and Chelten Avenues, a woman was weaving yarn on a wooden frame. “Listening Loom” read the hand-drawn sign that hung behind her.

“‘What is that?’” he asked her. The woman, Kathryn Pannepacker, an artist, smiled and invited him to stop a while.

“She said, ‘I want to help the neighborhood. I’m here to do my craft,’” he recalled. “She was very kind; I’ll tell you that. Usually people just blow you off, or they give you the once-by.”

So Flanagan told the artist a bit about himself, too.

“I’m a survivor of Kensington, I told her,” said Flanagan, who has been living in a Germantown recovery house since January. Pannepacker said she knew Kensington and its struggles well. The loom, as it turned out, had been there, too.

“We had a nice conversation. It was refreshing,” he said. “It brought some hope into the day.”

Nurturing hope can be one of the roles of the artist, according to Pannepacker, a Philadelphia-area native who has had the grace and grit to make her living through art ever since she fell in love with weaving in her senior year at Penn State over 30 years ago. Since then, she has led art workshops for seniors, women in prison, people with disabilities. She has sold pieces and received grants. But she has always created.

“I think [art] can be a touchstone for connection, for hope,” said Pannepacker, who describes herself as “an uplifter,” as well as an artist. She’s drawn to textile as a medium; “it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s soothing, it’s accessible.”

So is her Listening Loom, a project she started about two years ago to help encourage and enable connections between people, especially those she feels are too often unnoticed.

“I am definitely finding with COVID — and even before that — people are in the bubble of their own world, their own lives, the hustle and the bustle and the despair and the deadlines and the bills,” Pannepacker said. “We’re getting away from ‘Good morning, how are you doing?’ and looking each other in the eye. I wanted the chance to connect with people, to listen.”

The basics of the project are simple. Pannepacker packs up her loom, her yarns, two stools, her sign, hand sanitizer, and masks and sets up somewhere folks are likely to walk by. She greets those whose eyes meet hers, asks how they’ve been. She answers the questions of the curious, and gives people a chance, if they choose, to talk about anything they wish.

“I’ve brought my Listening Loom to different neighborhoods,” Pannepacker said.

People have told her about loved ones they have lost to COVID-19. Others have aired their frustrations with unemployment and businesses shutting down. Still others sat down on one of her stools to unload in the weeks of reckoning and outrage after the policing killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Just the other week, as city officials mulled plans to clear another homeless encampment in Kensington, Pannepacker set up her loom at the corner of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues and listened as people talked about the need for more drug treatment and mental health care, affordable housing, better sanitation services, and other community supports.

She’s well-acquainted with the struggles in Kensington. She has offered art programs through Prevention Point, the public health and harm-reduction organization in Kensington. And for four years, she and fellow artist Lisa Kelley offered weaving workshops and art programming they called “Tuesday Tea & Textiles” at the Kensington Storefront, a community space that had been funded by Mural Arts Philadelphia and the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. The Storefront is now closed, reportedly due to COVID-19 and zoning issues. Its loss is mourned by many in the community, including artists like Pannepacker and Kelley, who regarded it as a sanctuary.

Kelley recalls that initially, they set up their looms outside the Storefront, because it took a while to gain people’s trust enough for them to enter the building. But Pannepacker was willing to wait.

“She’s definitely trying to spread the love, because that’s Kathryn,” Kelley said. ”She’s trying to be like a community connector for people who maybe would not be connected otherwise.”

James Wasielewski, 32, a Germantown resident, stopped by the Loom the other day to say hello. The two first met a few years ago when he was living in a shelter where Pannepacker volunteered.

“Kathryn just didn’t come in and cook,” Wasielewski said. “She would eat with us and speak with us. She truly wanted to listen to what we had to say.”

These days, Wasielewski said, he volunteers with a group that helps the homeless. Back then, though, “sometimes I felt like such shit. I struggled with addiction. Kathryn always had a kind word. Sometimes that’s all you need.”

Often, Pannepacker’s work is the voice of her activism, intended to reflect what is happening in the larger community.

Last month, for example, she and activist Rosalind Pichardo presented an exhibit of “The Memorial,” their somber testament to the city’s gun violence epidemic. Shown at the BKG Funeral Home in North Philadelphia, as it was about five years before, the exhibit consists of two caskets. One is filled with spent shell casings. The other is covered by a large “Healing Blanket” comprised by smaller textile pieces representing those who have died. It’s intended to both honor the people lost to gun violence and be a call for peace.

Some of Pannepacker’s other artworks seek to bring comfort through beauty and inspiration, like her “shags” — textile creations that grace chain-link fences in neglected spots in the city.

Her Nana Blankets project, a textile mural, honored grandmothers and female ancestors. And she is currently working on a series of prayer rugs, but with a symbolism significant to some of the people whom she has come to know and care about in these recent years. The rugs are similar in shape to the container of Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote.

Pannepacker’s art is often accompanied by small, pointed gestures. Those who stopped by her Listening Loom the other day, for example, were given cards printed with affirmations to take with them. And for those who were willing, she gave “a blessing” — a strand of yarn tied around one of their wrists, with each knot accompanied by a wish for them for that day.

“The string is a visual reminder of our preciousness,” she said.

One of Pannepacker’s ongoing projects, Sweet Flower Bouquets, is based in gratitude for those who especially step up for their fellow community members. Zieger & Sons Inc., a Philadelphia wholesale florist, donates flowers that Pannepacker and her wife, Diane Owen Dunning, turn into bouquets that they gift to health-care workers, nurses, people who work in senior facilities, and others who care for those in need during the pandemic. So far, they’ve distributed 475 bouquets.

“Nature nurtures,” she said. Like her art, the bouquets embody “the theme of uplift.”

Meanwhile, Pannepacker herself is uplifted by those she meets and the stories she hears while sitting at her loom.

“It’s life, it’s the beauty of it all,” she said. “I love being on the street and being part of it. It’s like self-care for me.”

As for Jimbo Flanagan, his morning encounter with Pannepacker and her Listening Loom stayed with him throughout the day, a chance gift that kept giving.

“She touched not only me,” Flanagan said. “It went through to my girlfriend on the phone, and I told my whole house. That’s eight people touched by a 10-minute conversation. It just kept on going. It ended up being like the spread of good news. Maybe that’s what we need around here. I think we do.

“We all need somebody to talk to.”