If every picture tells a story, then David Garneau is preparing to tell hundreds of them. 

The Regina Métis artist and associate professor of painting and drawing at the University of Regina is already starting to create 400 Indigenous-themed paintings to be installed in a walkway under Edmonton's Tawatinâ Bridge. The bridge serves as an extension to the city's LRT system with a footbridge underneath. 

Garneau's submission was chosen from a group of Canadian Indigenous artists to receive the $295,000 commission for the two-year job. His paintings will be installed underneath the LRT tracks, and pedestrians walking on the footbridge portion will be able to look upwards and see it all.

"There'll be 400 separate panels, cut into shapes," Garneau said. "It sounds like a lot — it is a lot. But some of them are very small, as small as eight inches [20 centimetres] across. But others will be up to 14 feet [4.2 m], so they range in size."

david garneau indigenous art bridge edmonton regina

David Garneau's images for the project are already in the works. Here are a few of the 400 panels that will make up his installation. (David Garneau)

The paintings will be arranged in four themes of water, sky, earth and fire. 

"There will be medicine plants on there, fish, birds — there'll be one very large circle of about eight feet [2.4 m] across so that when you look up, it'll be like looking through a tipi," Garneau said.

Finding inspiration

CBC Radio's The Morning Edition asked whether he needed to have ideas for each and every panel ahead of receiving the commission.

"Still coming up with them!" he said with a chuckle. "That's 400 different ideas for the shapes, but then all the interior paintings — that's 400 more ideas." 

But Garneau already has the wheels in motion to come up with those ideas. He's been interviewing elders and people from the community to draw on their sense of Indigenous experience at the location of the bridge. He's also sorting through photographs and archives at the Royal Alberta Museum.

"So the ideas will come over time, and if something needs to be there that's not there yet, we can add it in," he said.

As for what's already in the works, for example, Garneau has a 4.2-metre jackfish painted, that contains a map of Edmonton from 1880 based on the Métis river lot system. Another is a panel shaped like a grinding stone, painted with berries. 

Homecoming

Garneau also has his own family history from which to draw inspiration.

​Based in Regina now, Garneau was raised in Edmonton. His family's roots are connected the city's beginnings, by way of his great-great grandparents. 

"My family helped settle Edmonton. So in the 1870s, Laurent and Eleanor Garneau fled Red River and set up camp, and used their scrip money to buy a plot."

The land they purchased is just a few kilometres away from the bridge that will bear his project, and the neighbourhood is still called Garneau today. 

"So I grew up there and I have those connections, and it's a really big honour to be able to go back and add something to a city that gave me so much," he said. 

'There's no way I could do this on my own'

Garneau's work has already been underway for a few months. He said the project's large scale means he'll need some help. He's expecting at least a third of the cost of the project to go toward labour.

"There's no way I could do this on my own, and that was built right in." he said, adding that he's planing to hire local Indigenous arts students and potentially other Indigenous artists. "Mostly, they're preparing panels but some folks who have some experience with painting, I'll be sort of mentoring them to help me sort of do, say, under the painting and I'll do the finishing work."

He said the project's size will be a 'big learning curve' for him, as his previous largest project is a painting that's 32 feet long and six feet high (9.7 by 1.8 meters). 

Garneau says he's going to Edmonton very frequently for the project, and to meet with anyone who has thoughts about the Indigenous content around the river valley.

Worth a thousand words

The artist says some images will be obvious representations, but others will be attached to stories or knowledge, so the project will spur its own oral history. 

"I'll take people on tours. Nothing will be written down in terms of the meanings of the pieces, and then those people who attend will be able to pass the stories on to others. Or elders and knowledge-keepers will be walking through and point out say, a number six, and [they'll know] that refers to Treaty 6." 

with files from CBC Radios's the Morning Edition