Richmondites who have been to Lansdowne Centre in the past two years might have wondered about the colourful series of paths in the parking lot, just outside the Trinity Western University campus.
The paths are part of an art piece titled Murmurations: Scores for Social Distancing. The piece depicts a choreographic score inspired by bird flocking behaviour and social distancing directions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s nice that it’s still there, that people are still really responding to it because it was very much a piece that I made at the beginning of the pandemic. [I was] thinking about the first moment of the pandemic for everybody,” said Lou Sheppard, 2020 Branscombe House Artist-in-Residence.
Sheppard created Murmurations during his residency in 2020 when the city of Richmond commissioned the piece as a part of the #RichmondHasHeart program.
“It was really cool because people would tag and [post it on] Instagram, and I would see it. I think one of the Richmond dance troupes was out to see it and actually performed it,” said Sheppard.
And he also got to see it whenever he went to T&T Supermarket for groceries, which was all the time.
“One thing that was really interesting about it… It felt like it was really specific to my experience in Richmond, but then it is a piece that translated for people across the country. A lot of people from all over have talked to me about it and been really curious about it.”
Two years after the artwork's installation, The Richmond News has caught up with Sheppard to reflect on his work and residency in Richmond.
Reflecting on Murmurations
“I had been thinking a lot about how I could create art experiences for the community that… they could experience physically, not online, but actually physically experience something that they could still stay safe [doing],” Sheppard told the News.
You're on the right track if you felt the itch to hopscotch on the markings.
“During the first bit of the pandemic, when the kids were out of school… around the Richmond neighbourhood… all these kids were doing hopscotches on the sidewalk. And so, I’d be walking through the neighbourhood and coming across all these amazing, super elaborate hopscotches,” he said.
The designs reminded Sheppard of the social distancing markings in grocery stores and other public places, and he began to imagine those notations as a dance.
When Sheppard created Murmurations, his idea was based on the newfound awareness that people had of one another.
“It’s kind of thinking about [flight formation of snow geese] in relation to… this moment where we needed to think about our own bodies and our own selves, but then we were really thinking about the health of our communities,” he explained.
Sheppard was fascinated by the snow geese migrations he saw in Richmond, and the way the snow geese approached being an ‘interdependent part of a whole’ as they came together in separateness.
“What I learned in my research was that a bird in a flock may have awareness of the bird in front of them and the two birds to the side of them… That’s how they monitor themselves in relation to those birds and that’s all they have to think about,” he explained.
But over time, as the world grappled with the pandemic and the practice of social distancing along with other lifestyle changes become integrated into our lives, Sheppard’s perspective is now a little different.
“I think the pandemic has shifted us to really start understanding our relationships to others and understanding our relationship to ecology in a different way…
It has evolved for me to be more about the care and the kind of active care-taking that I understand now that it is,” he said.
Lessons learned from making art in Richmond
The installation of Murmurations was completed on July 16, 2020, and it took Sheppard around two weeks.
“It was a lot of counting and a lot of just careful, careful work to get it fixed up and put in the right place,” he said.
Sheppard had enlisted the help of friends to translate his piece from a digital rendering to the pavement, and it was a memorable learning process.
“It took all of my math skills, so I was definitely stretching myself when I was thinking about it and how to make this grid and how to lay it out,” he said.
Sheppard also had to learn to work with the weather as he could only work on the installation on sunny days, and he learned to map out the piece with duct tape instead of chalk, which kept getting washed out by the rain.
Furthermore, social distancing restrictions during the pandemic posed a challenge for Sheppard, who had planned to connect with the local community in person.
“It pushed my practice to think about how to make space for people and how to make these opportunities for people in these very different ways. And I’m really happy with that challenge. I think it’s impacted my practice as I’m moving forward,” he said.
The unprecedented circumstances allowed Sheppard to explore the city differently, although he regrets not being able to visit the restaurants. By the time he wrapped up his residency and online workshops, he knew Richmond through and through.
“For Culture Days, I worked on a project called Rites of Passage, which was looking at all these rivers and waterways under Richmond… that had been rerouted or dammed or buried with the development of Richmond,” he said.
Sheppard created a map allowing Richmondites to explore reimagined rivers while listening to what he thought the rivers would sound like, which can still be found on his website today.
Since his residency, Sheppard has planted his roots in Nova Scotia, while still travelling the world for his art practice.
And Sheppard’s experience in Richmond has continued to inform his practice, as he works on a piece of public art about waterways for the new Great Northern Way-Emily Carr Sky TrainStation, which will be revealed in 2025.
Follow along with Sheppard’s art practice on his website, and Richmondites can also explore the Murmurations choreography while it’s still on the pavement at the Lansdowne Centre parking lot.