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Norman Laliberté, whose art delighted Logan passengers and a World’s Fair, dies at 95

Mr. Laliberté created panels that were welded together with brightly colored pieces of metal and displayed at Logan International Airport.KNOTT, JANET GLOBE STAFF PHOTO

Several years ago, Norman Laliberté began an interview by describing the guiding philosophy behind his life and work.

“We’re not here to do what has already been done,” he said in the interview, which is posted on YouTube. “That’s the most important thing about art.”

An artist whose work included banners that made him famous at the 1964 World’s Fair and at Logan International Airport, sculptures, and paintings, Mr. Laliberté was 95 when he died in his sleep Sept. 10 at home in Nahant.

Critics sometimes used the word whimsical to describe his work, which in many instances was so cheerful it seemed to smile and wink at viewers and passers-by.

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There was always more to each work, though, the artist said.

“It’s the information that you give to the paint that is important. Each one of my paintings has a message,” he said in the video interview.

“Whatever I read eventually becomes a painting,” Mr. Laliberté said. “So the color is secondary to the information I give to the painting. So a painting to me is just a way to the next painting.”

The colors that enlivened his banners, which in turn enlivened the experience of airport passengers who walked past at Logan, were unique to Mr. Laliberté, who drew at least some of his inspiration from childhood.

“Color is very personal, very personal. Every artist has his own color scheme,” he said. “In my case, I’m very colorful, and the reason is — I think, I’m not quite sure — is that you have to remember, I was brought up in Montreal, which is a very cold city, especially in the winter.”

One of Mr. Laliberté's sculpture reliefs.RYAN, David L. GLOBE STAFF

When he began painting, “I decided, I’ve got to use color because gray was not my palette. So that’s why I started using color,” he said. “And some of these colors were very inflammatory in a sense. They were pink, they were orange, they were magenta, but somehow I made them merge together, and that’s how the color came about.”

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“If you’ve been to Logan Airport’s Terminal E, you’ve seen work by Norman Laliberté. His colorful aluminum banners celebrating symbols of New England welcome travelers arriving at the international terminal,” Globe critic Cate McQuaid wrote in 1998.

At a show that year in the Chase Gallery on Newbury Street, Mr. Laliberté's paintings boasted “a tropical palette, and the quality of a bacchanal. Flowers explode over the basic grid that each painting is built on, languid and ephemeral,” she wrote.

“Even the titles rejoice, like ‘high noon in the garden of good and no evil,’ in which green birds of paradise with human souls nestled in their wings fly over shimmering figures, layered one over another – costumed, encultured people being distilled to their naked essence. Trees blossom prodigiously in the center. It’s a rollick,” McQuaid added.

Born in Worcester in 1925, Norman Laliberté was the oldest of six siblings. His mother, Rose Lambert Laliberté, was a seamstress. His father, Romeo Laliberté, was a handyman.

His parents had moved to Worcester to find work, and about a year after he was born, the family returned to Montreal, where his parents had little money while he was growing up.

Upon turning 18, Mr. Laliberté was surprised one day during World War II when a US draft notice arrived, instructing him to report to the draft board in Worcester.

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In a 2013 interview with WickedLocal, he recounted his reaction: “I said to my mother, ‘What’s Worcester?’ "

Mr. Laliberté did so, even though he spoke no English, only French. Initially stationed in Fort Knox, Ky., he was trained to learn Morse code, and was en route with his unit on a ship to Europe when they learned the war had ended.

He was in Germany for nearly two years during the post-war occupation and learned there about what had happened in the concentration camps.

His brief US residency during infancy, and service in the Army, qualified him for the GI Bill, which he used to initially study after returning home at what is now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design.

In the WickedLocal interview, he recalled that his few financial resources had steered him toward his calling. Mr. Laliberté was riding his bicycle one day and “it was cold, so I stopped in the Musée d’Art, thinking it would be heated and I could warm up.”

The museum turned out to be much warmer than his family’s home, and he thought: “Gee, I’d like to study art. It’s nice and warm.”

A year into his studies, he read about the Institute of Design in Chicago. Moving there, he received a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, and a doctorate from the institute, which is now the IIT Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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Along with creating art, Mr. Laliberté taught at the Kansas City Art Institute, Boston College, the University of Notre Dame, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

His breakthrough as an artist occurred when he created 88 banners for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Millions of visitors saw his work, launching his career.

He later incorporated various traditions into his works, including assemblages and wood sculptures that drew inspiration from totem poles he had seen while visiting British Columbia.

His work has been displayed in places such as Boston Children’s Hospital, the Marriott Hotel in Kendall Square in Cambridge, the lobby of Air Canada’s offices in Montreal, and a court building in Albany, N.Y.

He has illustrated, designed, written, and co-written books, too, and had served as a key designer for Boston’s First Night.

Mr. Laliberté's first marriage ended in divorce.

In 1978, he married Laurel Gallagher, who has a company that designs and builds home interiors. “He had an infinite amount of love to give,” said their son, Kristian of New York City. “There was no reserve. It was endless and his capacity for love sometimes took my mom’s and my breath away.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Laliberté leaves five children from his previous marriage, two daughters, Veronique of Nassau, N.Y., and Mimi of Mount Airy, Md.; three other sons, Jacques of Paulden, Ariz., Jesse of Amenia, N.Y., and Nicholas of Oakton, Va.; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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Family and friends will gather to celebrate Mr. Laliberté's life and work at 2 p.m. Oct. 23 in the Nahant Village Church.

Mr. Laliberté supported charities, often by donating his art.

“He had so much faith in humanity,” Kristian said. “He loved that his art could help a charity. Maybe it’s not donating a million dollars, but that was his passion and he loved connecting with people through that.”

Ideas for new art were never lacking during Mr. Laliberté's decades of creation.

“You have to remember, the sad thing about an artist — and all art — is that they cannot accomplish what they have in their mind, because you know there’s a thousand paintings up there,” he said in the interview posted on YouTube.

Though in the end, he added, “every painting enriches your life.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.