It never ceases to amaze me.  Artists are capable of crafting completely new things from the mundane.  Therese Lahaie is just such an artist.  She sees the world very differently than you and I.

That’s why we sat down with her to learn more.  The result is a very stimulating conversation with her about the canvas she works with, it’s not what you’d expect.  She describes it this way “transmitting light through glass as a canvas”.

One of the main things she’s attempting with her current project, “Crossing Signal Mosaic” is to take ordinary urban icons that govern our human activity, like streetlights and crossing signals, and by slowing them down, transform them into the extraordinary.

Just like actual pedestrian crossing signals from your local intersection, LED lighting is used for the Crossing Signal Mosaic project. The imagery is abstracted like a contemporary illuminated painting composed of saturated colors like a stained glass window. The art work will be located in the entryway of Parkside Archstone, a new 125 unit apartment complex being built in Emeryville, California.  The building will also feature retail stores on the ground floor.

Q: Can you tell us a little about how this project came about?

A: The City of Emeryville has an art acquisition program. The city purchased one of my light sculptures that is on display in city hall. The developer contacted me after seeing the art work and asked me to come up with a concept for the public art.

The Emeryville community is very familiar with technology.  My neighbor is PIXAR, the animation studio and there is a lot of biotech here too.  So it makes sense that the community is right for public art that uses current LED technology.

The city is also very supportive of the arts.  It used to be very industrial, but when companies moved out, artists moved in.  It has one of the highest per capita rates of artists and its public art requirements are stringent.  The developer is required to spend a percentage of the entire project budget on public art.

Q: How large is it?

A: The Crossing Signal mosaic will be mounted on the ceiling of the entry way which is 40’ deep and 24’ high and 12’ wide.  It will fill this “tunnel” with 5 different primary saturated colors and will be lit from 9am to 11pm.  Animation events can happen at different times of day.  You program the animation of the crossing signal characters by programming the LED’s (light intensity, color shift, etc).  Animation will be one of the most complex parts of the project.

Q: Walk me through the process you and Adam follow.

A: We have conference calls every Friday morning to review our priorities for the week and I send him the minutes; it enables us to stay on task.  He put together a timeline.  In construction, it is called a “schedule of values”.  What we have to have done by certain dates.  This is my first public art project of this size so I asked Adam to include project management fees in his bid.  It’s complex.  Adam is great at responding to the needs of the developer’s construction manager.  He sent me a video of the CAD drawing of how he envisioned the LED cabinet being built.  I sent back to him sketches of what the baffle (vertical wall) configuration should look like. We go back and forth a lot.  We use a Drop Box account, which is where we keep project documents, etc.

Q: What stage are you in?

A: We are currently in the mock up stage, designing the system of stencils and baffles, selecting LEDs and diffusers.

Q: Why not just use video?

A: We want to give the effect of video without using video.  Video equipment is expensive to maintain and acquire.  The original plan was to project using video.  Then we came up with the idea of the programed LED and let the light filter through the stencils. It’s like Gobo’s that are used in theatre lighting to project different shapes. It gives us the ability to project different patterns and is less expensive and easier to maintain.

Q: What was your source of inspiration?

A: There is a very busy intersection in Emeryville. I hung out at the intersection at various times of the day and night observing what was happening at the intersection, seeking inspiration for the artwork.

The most compelling images were videos I took of the pedestrian crossing signals at night from the intersection where the project is being built.  I was shooting them on a low res camera so the crossing signals hand and walk guy are abstracted.

I came up with 5 different characters (projected through LED’s that are in the back of the box onto etched glass):

  • Snow man = fuzzy version of white crossing guy on a blue background
  • Dotted man with green sun burst
  • Big mitt = giant red hand that fills the whole screen
  • Dotted hand = small orange hand and count down number
  • Sunburst = yellow light and an orange hand

Check out the video of the mosaic by clicking here.

Q: What kind of reaction did you get when folks looked at your imagery?

A: We are taking the timing of this busy intersection and slowing it down to a more human pace.  People tell me now they look at crossing signals in a whole new way. They say they started to notice the saturated color and how the color reflects on nearby surfaces.  Most people are impatient with red lights.  I asked them how long they thought red lights really are.  People would tell me 5 minutes; but at the intersection where the public art is they’re really only 26 seconds!  Perception has changed since viewing this.  I want to take something mundane and make it magical!

Q: How is the mosaic going to work mechanically?

A: We are trying to use an electronic signage cabinet with programmable LED’s behind the character shapes.  We will control the light with vertical dividers or baffles and project through stencils..  The baffles and stencilswill probably be built out of aluminum.  Stencils go on top of the baffles to project light and achieve the different shapes.

Q: Any new equipment requirements?

A: We definitely need special LED fixtures and drivers.  Adam has a controls guy to work with.

Q: How did you meet Adam?

A: An engineer at the electronic sign fabricator I was working with originally left the company and I didn’t feel confident with this fabricator unless I had someone to translate the artist’s concepts.  So I contacted Northern California sculptor Ned Kahn.  He and I have been at shows together.  I asked him for a recommendation and he highly recommended Adam.  As soon as I talked with him, I knew he was my man.  He knew exactly what we were doing, understood the budget, got the technical side.  I felt very good he could guide the project to completion.  He has a sign company so he knows how to build signage boxes and he does public art, he had all the skills.

Q: What challenges did you face?

A: The biggest challenge was just getting the contract.  We started this project in 2008, and then the economy went south.  Because of the greed of the plutocracy, it went on hold.  We were in recession.  We went through a major transition on the developer side.  Then the project went online…in 2013, we finally have the contact!


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