Piper Shepard doesn't know who nominated her to receive $50,000. But when the list of 2016 United States Artists winners came out last week, the Maryland Institute College of Art professor's name was on it, alongside big names like Miranda July and Shirin Neshat.
"I was extremely surprised," said Shepard, 54.
Shepard said the award would allow her to travel to Korea as part of an upcoming group exhibition – and hopefully allow time to research textiles of that country.
"I'm kind of the perpetual student – always learning," she said.
Shepard is a full-time faculty member of MICA’s fiber department, where she helps young artists develop an appreciation for textiles and an understanding of their history. “Every textile invention is a kind of extraordinary innovation,” she said, requiring any number of looms or weaving structures, crafted over the centuries.
Shepard has spent a lot of time focusing on one particular material: lace. First invented as an embroidery technique in the 15th century, it later evolved into various other forms. It “has a lot of human qualities to it,” managing to be simultaneously fragile and perseverant. “It’s just the most delicate gossamer, it’s ephemeral and it’s cloth – it’s kind of amazing,” she said with a laugh.
In 2005 she built a site-specific lace installation for the Baltimore Museum of Art inspired* by lace acquired by the Cone sisters, the famous collectors whose holdings now belong to the BMA. "The beauty of the collection at the BMA is that they have so many fine pieces that are well conserved and well cared for," she said.
Nominations for the United States Artists awards are anonymous, but nominees are contacted to submit their materials for consideration. U.S. Artists was founded in 2006 by the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson and Prudential Foundations. Since then, it has distributed over $21 million to nearly 450 artists, according to its website.
Shepard may never know who’s responsible for her windfall. “I’m not even going to try and guess,” she said. “Why would I do it?”
*This story has been updated. The original version incorrectly stated that the lace came from the Cone collection.