Murmuration is the name given to the phenomenon of the huge patterns in the sky that starlings create when flying in unison. Next year, Christ Church Cathedral will unveil an art installation, Murmuration, as created by artist Anne Patterson. “Just as birds in a flock create awe-inspiring, cloud-like formations, we humans together as a community can create something that is greater than the sum of our parts, something that cannot be resisted,” says the artist.
In the interview that follows, Patterson explains why she chose the Cincinnati cathedral for this exhibit, how she works, the role of spirituality in her work, and synesthesia, the condition that allows her to experience her senses in colors and shapes and patterns.
BARBARA LYGHTEL ROHRER: You had the idea for Murmuration in mind for some time. What made you think that Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati was the place for this installation?
ANNE PATTERSON: I have been very inspired by murmuration for a long time, trying to figure out how I could capture this in an art installation. Scientists think birds fly in formation as protection from predators, but I don’t think that is the only reason. They discovered that each bird communicates to the seven other birds around it. If one bird does something, then seven birds will do exactly the same thing.
Murmuration feels like a visual manifestation of what I think of when I think of the Spirit—something that comes over you, is larger than you, for which you do not have an explanation. And it also changes—that is what is amazing about watching those birds in formation when they radically change shape. That reflects my own spirituality, which is ever changing. I think I have the spiritual all figured out and then I realize I don’t at all. Or something comes into my life and takes me in a new direction. Seeing those birds feels like a correlation with the spiritual.
When I began talking to Dean Gail Greenwell about my work for Christ Church Cathedral, I realized the impact that the cathedral’s outreach has had on the community of Cincinnati—food ministries, housing ministries, and more. Each ministry feels like a coming together of individual birds, creating a beautiful thing. At the same time, the cathedral is the home where all the birds come to gather. The movement of back and forth seemed to me like a murmuration, and I knew I had found the place to create this piece.
BLR: Your art installations are large pieces with a strong collaborative element. Do you bring in your crew or do you seek out people from the community in which your work is to be installed?
AP: I love to work as much as possible with people from the community for a totally self-serving reason—it makes my job so much easier. They help me in so many different ways. They know the resources of the community. On the other hand, I do have people with whom I comfortably and regularly work. I plan to use John McGovern, whom I have worked with in the past, as the project manager. He has an engineering background. And I have an associate designer, Kina Park. She will be involved with this piece too. But I plan to work with the lighting designer that the cathedral uses, Trevor Shibley.
I find the art becomes part of the community when I bring in as many local people as possible, so I will be looking for ways to involve more local people. It makes for a much stronger piece of art.
BLR: Your art installations often include music performances. For a permanent installation, is the work developed with the music in mind, so that in order to experience the full effect of the art, the music is needed, or is the art complete unto itself?
AP: The art is complete unto itself, yet I am so inspired by music. I arrived at the cathedral yesterday in time for the Music Live at Lunch concert. The performer was pianist Jooyoung Kim. I thought I would just listen to one piece because I had a very busy day ahead of me. The first piece was a short Bach piece that was incredibly beautiful. I pulled out my sketchbook and began to work. I stayed for the next piece. Then the third! It is astounding to me how my creativity is so inspired by music. It doesn’t mean that exact Bach piece has to be listened to when viewing any piece that could grow out of yesterday’s sketches, but it is how I create work. I rarely work without music on. It opens my doors of creativity.
BLR: Will you speak more about the role music will play in the creation and the exhibition of Murmuration?
AP: Patrick Harlin is a composer I connect with on many levels. He can say just one or two things that will really influence me and vice versa. He has known about the Murmuration project for a long time. He is also very inspired by nature. He is thinking about composing a piece inspired by the four seasons and inspired by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And I think about how Murmuration can be lit in many different ways to reflect the four seasons. It is a subtle type of collaboration.
I have also met with Stephan Casurella, the cathedral’s music director, and we have ideas for different music events—possibly one with the Cincinnati Opera, and one involving Tibetan singing bowls. We are in the very early stages of planning, so some of our ideas may change dramatically.
BLR: For Murmuration, there will be what you have called “particle-like elements” with each element representing a bird in a flock. Do you know yet how these elements will be created?
AP: I have created two shapes, just out of cardboard, that look like slivers of the moon. I glued them together to create a very abstract bird. I also have another shape cut from classical Japanese paper. The final elements will probably look like these prototypes. Because we need thousands of these birds, I am looking into possibly using a 3D printer to create them. That will also give dimension to each piece.
The final installation will be partly composed of these elements and partly composed of some other element that shows a swooping movement—I think! It is all a process.
BLR: How long does a typical installation on the scale in which you work take?
AP: Developing the overall concept of the project takes three to four months normally. That includes working out the logistics, as well as the technical aspects, and how the music components will fit in. Overall, it’s about a year and a half’s work, off and on, since I am working on other projects too.
The physical installation usually has to happen within 4-5 days because of restrictions on the availability of the space—we can’t close up the whole cathedral for a long period.
I have a model of the cathedral in my studio. Once I figure out exactly what the shapes will be and how the overall piece will look, I will have Kina complete the technical drawings. Then I will bring on John, as I mentioned, for project management. He will look at the drawings and recommend, in collaboration with cathedral’s facilities director Mark Reed, on how the installation should be built and hung.
I have also been wondering if there is a way of attaching some of the birds outside of the building, on light poles and such, so it appears as if they are flying down the street to a gathering place, which is the cathedral. The narthex before you enter the nave is fantastic. The birds could begin gathering there, with the idea that when the doors are open they all come streaming in.
BLR: You have a quality known as synesthesia, which speaking very simplistically is the ability to see music and hear color. At what age did you become aware that not everyone has this experience?
AP: I didn’t realize I had synesthesia with music until I was about 30. I was working on the set design for my first opera, The Barber of Seville, when I broke my right shoulder. I am right handed so I had to work with my left arm, which was a challenge. As I was listening to the music of The Barber of Seville, I knew I could not do a lot of sketches, so I was trying to figure out how to complete the project. That was when it became so clear to me—perhaps because I was working with my left hand—that the music was orange and yellow and red. And I could clearly see the shapes. I finished the design in what felt like an afternoon. It came together easily. Then it started happening again and again for other work, but I still did not know I had synesthesia. The term was not in our public consciousness.
I started working with Robert Spano, who is now music director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. When we started collaborating on projects, I would say things like, “I feel like Bach’s St. John Passion is very linear, hard and straight. And Bach’s St. Matthew Passion feels very curvy, comforting, and round.” Robert got what I was saying. He said that is the way those pieces of music are. He told me about synesthesia.
Numbers had genders and complete personalities for me as a child. I was embarrassed by this, so I never told anyone. That’s another part of synesthesia—mixing the senses, applying feelings, colors, shapes, and personalities to non-animate things. You see this quality in musicians. They talk about how a series of notes is red or green. It is an interesting condition. I believe many people have this ability, maybe to lesser degrees than me, but because we don’t talk about it, they aren’t aware of it. We are so conditioned to think of our senses as being very separate entities, yet, as we all know something like a taste or smell can bring back an incredible memory. I think that is a bit of a clue as to how synesthesia works.
BLR: What role does your faith and your spiritual practice play in your creations?
AP: I’ve always felt that to a certain degree—and I think many artists feel this way—that I am merely a vessel, that you need to keep yourself open and not get in your own way, to just let the spirit or inspiration come through you. I try not to think that I know all the answers. Often before a day’s work, or if I am feeling a bit stuck, I will sit and meditate with my hands open. I will say, please come in now. I wait for that inspiration to come in whatever way it can and guide me.
Sources and Resources
A Bird Ballet: https://vimeo.com/58291553
for Anne Patterson
The Seasons by Lee Krasner
Deposition by Giotto
Red Petals by Alexander Calder