Studio visit, Piper Shepard
November, 2017, Baltimore, MD.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Willimantic and Columbia, CT. Willimantic in its hey day, was a New England textile town, home of American Thread. My grandparents lived there, and my mom grew up there. My father was from Bridgeport, CT. Both my parents were first generation college. My mom was a first grade school teacher. My father practiced general and family law in the town for fifty-five years. I was the youngest of three kids. Columbia is a small, sweet New England town. We spent a lot of time outside as kids…my brother still lives there with his family, my mom still lives there. When I was growing up, my mom painted so I know that had a big effect on me. She is self-taught, but nevertheless, I have a strong memory of her painting which got me interested in art. I left to go to school in Philadelphia. That was an incredible decision for me because it changed the direction of my life.
What is the driving force behind your work?
The driving force is understanding how cloth is connected to human history. It has qualities that hold history and memory, it’s ubiquitous, familiar, fragile, impermanent, and I feel like understanding these qualities underscores everything that I do. From there, there are areas that I continue to research, and probably two of the offshoots from that basis are opportunities to study textile history, and to work with historians or collections, to work on some larger scale projects.
I’ve also been interested in how cloth intersects with architecture, as ornament and decoration and how textile operates in a micro and macro sense. You know how we admire the intimacy of it, where handwork and its development is amplified. What I call the sensorial wisdom of textile. And then there’s how it functions in space. There’s a story happening. It is a substance that’s malleable, moveable—and it’s a material that binds us all. I feel like that is at its root. So, the qualities I’m interested in creating in my work are for lack of a better way of describing it, human qualities.
Can you talk about how your preferred processes have changed or evolved over time?
Definitely digital printing and laser cutting are the newer components. I’ve been hand-cutting cloth for seventeen years and I came to that through my interest in repeat pattern and screen printing. I feel like much of fiber has to do with material investigation. That’s probably how you think of it in your own work as well. In terms of developing and becoming skilled as a screen printer, making a lot of repeat patterns and working with a process called devoré [a way to etch cloth]. I was stretching these printed scrims on big armatures and creating architectural spaces, so it just slowly evolved into physically piercing through the work. I started cutting [the fabric] as an experiment. I maintained that way of working for such a long period of time because for me it was almost like a kind of drawing. I could work really regimented or very intuitively. I could work or cut by making a free hand drawing or not. And then I started thinking about laser cutting, which had come into everyone’s world. For me, for such a long time, I continued on my way with hand cutting because of how important that is to the textiles I was looking at.
But at the same time, it’s another tool when you start to work with newer technology. I start thinking about how there’s a certain kind of delicacy and fragility I can get with certain materials that I can start to utilize in my work. I also started to pursue digital ways of working because I felt I was at a crossroads that could be a natural extension of what I had already developed. So that’s is how the making evolved. The researching has evolved as well. I have started to travel much more to gain a deeper or better understanding of textiles.
For instance, over the past few years I’ve traveled to Japan to investigate the traditions of Katagami (stencil carving) and Katazome (stencil printing). So that is another layer that broadens the work. The big textiles are really an endurance. I’ve had amazing help here and there when I’ve needed it, but getting the grant [referring to the United States Artists grant] let me seek and explore new ways of working and some new materials that maybe I hadn’t thought of before, or ones that I couldn’t really deal with in such a delicate way, so that’s been interesting for me to pursue. Long story short, it’s never static, it’s always evolving.
How do you decide when an application should be by hand or to employ technology?
So much of the work moves between the two. Laser cutting lets me explore what I don’t know, in terms of asking questions about how I’m pushing that material and how I can inject myself into the process while I’m working digitally. I’m building every file dot by dot, I’m still working as I always have. I’m just trying to think of ways of interrupting the process.
What is your biggest struggle in the studio?
Time…I feel like there’s such a frenetic pace right now that my studio becomes my solace. The most difficult struggle is after a big project, then coming in the next morning and starting again. I like to try to leave slivers of projects around so I can start up again. It’s interesting though because sometimes there’s opportunities and connections, you’re working and there’s one thing after another in terms of deadlines. Then there’s that open space where I can move in any direction. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get rolling again, even after being at it for a while, or when there’s those kinds of moments where I’m not sure what I’m doing, but I’m doing it. I have to have that. It makes for ways of working and gaining knowledge.
Sometimes projects are very planned because it’s what a project needs or requires, sometimes I’m left to my own devices, that’s a pretty incredible privilege. I think that’s just one of the beauties of working; how do you push the work, how do you sustain and keep going, and it’s always times of knowing and not knowing. Maybe some of the more exciting times are when I don’t know where it’s taking me, where I have that time to reflect back on things…certain things leave and drop, and certain things remain, things succeed, things fail. These are all the kinds of risk-taking; the things we talk about while teaching. We’re living it. It’s hard work, inquisition, and luck. They all sit at the table and they’re all conversing.
A lot of your work exists in black and white, can you talk about this decision?
I’m drawing lines in space; I’m cutting and removing the background to create a void. That’s why I always use graphite on my work. There’s this whole trajectory of removing. Everything is muslin and graphite. They need to absorb light and project shadow, and I’ve deepened the color for that to happen. There’s a mood, too. There’s a solemnness; that’s deeper and richer. There was a time where I was making a lot of work that had to do with lace, and studying and looking for those qualities of fragility and ephemerality, these gossamer textiles, built with these very ethereal lines. Lace was the exact textile for me to investigate. I would also be drawn to the sensibility of it. I really loved the sense that there’s a kind of seductiveness in black lace, the laces for mourning and loss, all the qualities of the black lace are really much more interesting to me. It’s all incredible, but that had much more of a pull. So it’s the shadow side of looking at those kinds of textiles I found to be very attractive. It has a lot of emotion.
Do you have any projects or exhibitions you’d like to promote ?
Currently, I’m working toward a group exhibition in March called, Adornment: Excess in Beauty at the Walton Art Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, curated by Cynthia Thompson. The show will explore how delicate materials and processes can communicate vulnerability and intimacy as physical conditions. I’m also working on a few collaborative proposals that I hope will come to fruition in the next year or so.