By Brad Durrell
Rudy Shepherd liked to draw as a child but didn’t get serious about art until his junior year as a pre-med student at Wake Forest University.
That’s when another biology major suggested he take a sculpture course because it would be “easy and fun.” Shepherd was inspired by the instructor, an artist known for his public and political art projects in New York City.
“It sparked something,” he said. “I got really excited about making art.” It also provided a way for him to confront “the things I struggled with growing up, like racism,” said Shepherd, 45.
He signed up for more art classes and decided to pursue an artistic career, later earning a master’s degree in sculpture. Now Shepherd’s art has been displayed at museums around the country, Europe and Mexico.
Through Nov. 29, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield will display 25 watercolor paintings by Shepherd depicting the victims of police brutality and other race-related incidents.
“Rudy Shepherd: Somebody’s Child” includes paintings of George Floyd (Minneapolis, Minn.), Breonna Taylor (Louisville, Ky.), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Mo.) and Ahmaud Arbery (Brunswick, Ga.) as well as individuals whose names may not be as familiar to most Americans.
Amy Smith-Stewart, senior curator at the Aldrich, said she hopes visitors will want to research some of these other cases to learn about racism in the United States.
Through his art, Smith-Stewart said, Shepherd “tries to understand who these people were before these incidents and present them as human beings. That’s really important.”
The Aldrich reopened in late June and advanced timed tickets now are required for admission. Visitors must wear masks, socially distance and follow other safety protocols.
The exhibit also features video of a 2016 performance art portrayal by Shepherd in Harlem, in which as The Healer he interacts with a large public artwork he did to purge racism, exclusion and trauma through empathy and positive energy.
The paintings are part of Shepherd’s portrait series, featuring 9-inch by 12-inch watercolors he creates soon after hearing about incidents in the media.
He began the series in 2007 after seeing a tabloid newspaper headline about a Black man accused of killing two police officers. At first he focused on Black suspects and how they were treated by the media, but expanded it to include crime victims, police brutality victims, artists, spiritual leaders and other people of color. The series currently has more than 400 works.
“It’s a way for me to make art about what’s going on in the world, things that come up in the news, and to honor people,” explained Shepherd, an associate art professor at Penn State University.
He believes the media likes to create heroes and villains through its coverage. “I try to dig deeper, to bring depth to it and get people thinking, ‘Who are these people? What’s the real story?’” he said.
Shepherd was born in Baltimore, raised in Texas and northern Virginia, and now lives in New York City.
His family has been affected by issues involving race. An aunt, who had mental illness, was killed by police after a family member requested help when she was acting out of control. ”The police came and they handled it poorly,” he said.
Family members who remained in Baltimore were impacted by drugs and violence. He realizes his parents moved elsewhere to give him a chance at a better life.
“My experience with racism was more being the only Black kid in an all-white school,” Shepherd said. “Kids would say racist things and had these crazy expectations about me, like ‘You listen to this kind of music” or ‘You’re good at basketball.’ It was difficult in that way.”
He said this is why he found his college art classes so liberating. “Art was a place you could really talk about that stuff and process it,” he said.
He’s cautiously optimistic the country will take some meaningful steps to deal with systematic racial inequality. “It’s different than when I grew up and it wasn’t necessarily being reported on and we just accepted this is how the world is,” he said. “People are like, ‘We’re not going to put up with it.’”
At the same time, he worries change may not happen very fast. “I find myself with this mix of being inspired and encouraged, while something in the back of my mind is pessimistic, saying, ‘Oh, things will never change. They never have.’ But if you look at the long game, like with my parents, things have changed but it takes a long time,” he said.
Shepherd’s work has been shown at museums, universities, galleries and arts organizations, including a group show at the Aldrich in 2018. He’s received multiple artist residencies at New York arts institutions.
After making the decision to be an artist late in college, he had to tell his parents he wasn’t going to be a doctor after all. They initially worried about his ability to earn a good living.
“Over the years, I haven’t starved to death and now I’m a professor so they are very proud and don’t worry anymore,” Shepherd said.
The museum will be producing a poster of the exhibition and will be donating 100 percent of the proceeds to Color of Change, a civil right advocacy nonprofit.
Top image: Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician shot 8 times by Louisville Police who entered her apartment without knocking, 2020.