Rarely does a visitor catch sight of Thérèse Lahaie’s Silver Gray Nocturne Triptych (2005.4.204) in the Museum’s Ben W. Heineman Sr. Family Contemporary Glass Gallery and not walk over or lean in to get a closer look. Something in, or behind, the panels of glass is rising and falling—soundlessly, rhythmically, slowly, as if breathing. The gently moving shapes behind the panels of glass might also be waves lapping in a shallow tidal pool.
Taking a peek behind the panels, we see fabric moving gently toward the panels and back again. The movement comes from an unseen low-rpm motor, which is connected to a metal shaft with brushes that push against and release the fabric. Light is projected through the panels, creating patterns of shadow and reflection like light on the surface of water...with the rhythm “of heartbeat and breath,” the artist writes, “expansion and contraction, which direct and sustain our lives.” She says the Nocturne series references the shifting shadows and reflections in J.M. Whistler’s dusk-time paintings by the same name.
“I’ve always been interested in the connection between spirituality and technology,” states Lahaie, the daughter of a former Trappist monk who became a technology editor. As a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, she used to sit in the chapel, soothed by the light pouring in through the images of saints on the stained glass windows. At the time, she was studying fine art and biology, preparing to become a medical illustrator, but discovered that her true calling lay in the “conversation with light” she had discovered in the college chapel. Her next step was a junior year abroad in London, studying art history. In cathedrals throughout Europe, she recalls “feeling the solace and beauty in light transmitted through glass. I fell in love with glass as a material.” Lahaie returned to Boston to graduate from Emmanuel College and then study glass sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art.
The experience of living near the ocean, in Boston or along San Francisco Bay, where she has lived since 1987, has also been a powerful influence on her work. Navigation systems, buoys, and diagrams appear often in her sculpture. In some of her pieces, slumped (curved) buoy forms are layered inside a glass box painted with nautical charts. To Lahaie, the use of nautical shapes and symbols is “a metaphor of how we navigate through confusion.”
She began to incorporate movement into her sculptures when a dance company asked her to collaborate on a series of rocking buoy sculptures. The dancers rocked and spun the illuminated sculptures, creating moving patterns. When the audience began spontaneously rocking, responding to the environment, Lahaie recalls the moment as “the first time that I actually had a physical effect on the audience. I felt totally connected to them.”
For a show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Glass Linking Art and Science, she took her slumped glass panels to an engineer. Using the low-rpm motor recommended by the engineer, she produced the rhythmically moving shadows that take the viewer on an “internal” navigation. Now also experimenting with fiber optics, solar-powered kinetic sculptures, and photographic images that explore the cosmology inside air bubbles in glass, she hopes her work will encourage viewers to slow down and sense the fundamental rhythms of the universe and their own life essence.