The world of classical piano is often lacking in non-Asian artists of color. But the Sphinx Medal is highlighting the accomplishments of Lara Downes, an up-and-coming artist whose racial identity has shaped her work.

Awarded a 2016 Sphinx Medal of Excellence given each year to distinguished, emerging classical artists of color, American pianist Lara Downes says the $50,000 career grant “just fell from the sky.”

If it did, it was a sky painted with the deeply exploratory brushstrokes of a hardworking artist whose interest in classical music extends well beyond notes in a score or technique in fingers on piano keys. Lauded by the likes of NPR, Huffington Post, and others, Downes’ intriguing performance and recording projects, her Green Room radio show, and her Artist Sessions series of pop-up concerts demonstrate her good fortune is far more than luck.

But it might surprise most people listening to her nuanced, elegant, and decidedly facile playing — or audiences familiar with her casual, breezy conversational tone — that Downes has experienced a kind of “growth spurt” during the past several years.

“There are a lot of things about my [racial identity] and shaping my artistic choices that I’m only realizing now,” she says, as if waking from a dream. “This music — any music written against an ‘ism’ — was written by real people with real troubles, joys, suffering, fear.” — Lara Downes