Portrait of an Artist: Karin Sheppard -Winter 2008

by: Maureen Molloy Holmes

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

It’s rarely easy for artists to make a living from their trade, and when high housing and fuel costs and a seasonal tourism base are factored in, this adage rings even truer for Nantucket’s artist community. It takes years of laboring and more than a modicum of good luck to gain the recognition and following necessary to secure financial freedom.

Karin Sheppard weaves an alpaca throw. She purchases Frog Tree alpaca yarn, produced by a nonprofit cooperative in South America for the Cape Cod-based T&C Imports.

As a lifelong Nantucket resident, textile artist Karin Ganga Sheppard knew well the economic uncertainty she’d face when she Nantucket Looms in 2000 after more than 20 years to open Island Weaves in a converted scallop shanty on Hooper Farm Road.

Business started off slow in her basement, where she operated for six years. Two years ago Sheppard had developed a strong enough client base to expand into the 18-by-7-foot sunny studio that houses a single loom, all her materials and her retail products, though she still maintains the subterranean space, equipped with three additional looms, as a winter workshop. She also continues to work a second job as she and her husband, self-employed as a writer and musician, have remained steadfast in their desire to do the work they love while raising two children and managing a household.

Sheppard spent many gratifying years weaving at Nantucket Looms before she sensed a steady urge to expand her repertoire and incorporate more of her own designs.

“Most weavers specialize in one thing, like rugs, but I don’t specialize in anything. Doing all sorts of different things is very freeing,“ she said. “There are no rules now, and that’s what I wanted.”

Her products are crafted from high-quality natural fibers and include throws made of silk, alpaca and cashmere; and scarves made of rabbit-hair angora. Her versatile line also includes silk and merino wool wraps, washable cotton baby blankets, hand-woven silk eyeglass cases, cotton dish-towels, multi-fiber scarves, linen place mats and upholstery fabric.

One of her most popular products, now considered a Karin Sheppard signature piece, is the Madaket Mall Mat, made entirely from recycled materials. Here the focus was on cultivating an ability to see possibility in the things that others discarded as waste. When beginning a rug, Sheppard gathers up the reclaimed towels, wool blankets, denim jeans and khaki pants she finds at the “Madaket Mall,” as she many other islanders affectionately call the island’s landfill, recycling and composing facility.

After cleaning the fabrics, she fashions the perfect bathroom rug, turning other people’s trash into a magnificent treasure. She embellishes most of the rugs with sewn-edge, braided-fringe, or knotted-fringe finishes.

As her Madaket Mall Mat attests, Nantucket is a common inspiration for Sheppard. Her Island Wedding Shawl is made of 100 percent natural white silk, woven in an elegant wide herringbone pattern that’s well-suited as an extra-luxurious layer for a bride’s seaside nuptials. Even the whitewashed tones of the skeins she chooses for many of her pieces are evocative of the beach and natural surroundings, which she punches up occasionally with a bold shot of color.

Sheppard was first introduced to the art of weaving as a young girl. As the daughter of Lia Marks, Nantucket Looms’ longtime seamstress, she often delivered her mother’s CPO-style tweed jackets to the shop, where she became fascinated by the weavers at their looms and the beautiful fabrics they created. Soon she was dropping by more often after school to witness yarn being transformed into scarves, stoles and throws. Noticing her interest, the weavers patiently taught her the craft.

After graduating from Nantucket High School, Sheppard earned a teaching degree and worked briefly in San Francisco until Nantucket Looms’ then-owner Bill Euler called and asked her to man the shop for a season while his store manager recovered from surgery. Sheppard agreed to return on a temporary basis but instead stayed on another 20 years and became a weaver herself.

It was with the proprietor’s blessing that the shop’s protégé took off on her own. Sheppard’s discipline, her ability to envision the finished product, and her cheerful personality are the keys to her success as an artist and a small business owner, said Liz Winship, the current owner of Nantucket Looms. It also helps that she is blessed with long arms that can easily wind a warp and thread a large loom, she added.

“Karin is an amazing technician. It takes a special person to not only get the loom properly prepared for the project but to follow it through with a creative idea,” said Winship. “Karin knows the whole nine yards from setting up the loom to watching the product go out the door. She works hard, and she takes none of it for granted.”

Nantucket Looms, now located on Federal Street, still carries Sheppard’s cotton and cotton chenille throws, and the Harbor Gallery on Old South Wharf sells her wool wraps. The rest of her woven creations, however, sell largely through word of mouth and her website, islandweaves.com.

Within the last year, Sheppard’s talent and ingenuity have also been aided by the island’s tight-knit artist and philanthropic community. In particular, Sustainable Nantucket has provided greater exposure of her heirloom-quality work to the island’s seasonal residents and visitors.

Sustainable Nantucket’s aim is “to preserve the community character of Nantucket while sustaining its economic and environmental vitality,” said Tara Grunwald, development associate at the nonprofit organization that was formed in 1999. “We want to stress the importance of buying local goods and eating locally-grown food.”

As part of this mission, Sustainable Nantucket hosts the Nantucket Farmers & Artisans Market, which provides another venue for local food producers and craftspeople to sell their wares directly to consumers.

Having completed its second season this fall, the market was open every Saturday morning from June to October. This year the market was held in the Dreamland Theater parking lot on Easy Street during June and July before it relocated to the Nantucket New School parking lot on Nobadeer Farm Road from August to October.

Sheppard is effusive in her praise of Sustainable Nantucket, saying that the market has enabled her to sell a greater number of her pieces this year than would have been possible otherwise. It also provided the added perk of letting her meet and mingle with fellow artists, neighbors and other visitors to the open-air bazaar.

“Thank God for Sustainable Nantucket,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful thing they do for us, and to be on the receiving end of this generosity is a strange, nice feeling.”

Sheppard is cognizant of seeking avenues to help others in her own work. She purchases Frog Tree alpaca yarn because it is produced by a nonprofit cooperative in South America for the Cape Cod-based T&C Imports. The yarn is minimally more expensive than others, but Sheppard said she gladly incurs the additional cost because purchases made by T&C Imports allow the cooperative to provide continuous work and fair wages to farmers in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. The cooperative starts with the raw alpaca fibers and completes the entire process from sorting the fibers according to color and then cleaning, spinning and dyeing the yarn. A number of the farmers have also been trained to create their own hand-knit sweaters from this yarn.

Besides, Sheppard added, Frog Tree offers a tincture of colors not available from other textile manufacturers. Other common yarns used in her work include a European palette of English Normandy linen, Italian spun silk and French cashmere.

The highest compliment she could receive would come much later if she found that one of her creations became a family heirloom, noting that the word heirloom derives from something made on the loom and given to an heir. “I love the idea of my christening blanket or wedding shawl being passed on to the next generation,” she said.

Sheppard also collaborates with island designer Donna Elle and with the internationally-renowned modern furniture maker Vladimir Kagan. Though his showroom and factory are based in New York City and many of his upholstery fabrics are manufactured commercially, he uses Sheppard’s pliable and sturdy wools and cottons for his custom projects. Kagan tells Sheppard what a particular client is looking for in terms of color and texture, and Sheppard then creates samplings for him.

“I like to use Nantucket artists whenever I can, and with Karin it’s easy because she’s incredibly talented, always reliable, and great to work with,” Kagan said. “She has a good loom that can support wide fabrics, and I’ve used her designs and adapted them to my needs.”

To supplement her income Sheppard works evenings during the summer in the kitchen at Bartlett’s  Ocean View Farm market prepping and packaging food. She is drawn to the repetitive facet of the job, which lets her achieve the Zen quality she craves. “It’s a restful, lovely job,” she said. “It does for me what weaving used to do.”

She’s still able to capture those meditative moments while working on her loom, but since opening Island Weaves her mind necessarily diverts its attention toward the more mundane and fiscal details inherent in running a small business.

“Everything I make is meant to sell, and it has to pay the bills,” said Sheppard. “Rather than rest my mind, I have more to think about. It’s good for me to think, and some of it is creative, but I do miss the mindless aspect of weaving that I had before.”

She’s not lamenting her move, though, and has few qualms about where she’s at. “Most mornings while I’m eating breakfast I’m thinking that I can’t wait to get to work,” Sheppard said. “How many people can say that about their job?”

Maureen Molloy Holmes is a freelance writer.

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