Bill Wainwright, 87; sculptor who made light dance in public spaces
William Wainwright’s kinetic sculptures, with their playful forms and refractive surfaces, were fitting reminders of his personality and sensibilities.
An architect who left teaching at Harvard and never wore a tie again, Mr. Wainwright’s creations catch the light, cast rainbows, and send out bolts of glimmering light.
“The light was bouncing off Bill all the time and back at you,” said Boston sculptor Steve Hollinger, recounting the remarks of friends this spring when Mr. Wainwright’s sculpture “WindWheels” was rededicated at Logan International Airport. It was one of the first works of public art ever installed at Logan.
Mr. Wainwright, who lived in Cambridge and Gloucester and helped found the Great Boston Kite Festival in 1969 with his wife, Clara, died Aug. 17 at the Hospice of the North Shore & Greater Boston in Danvers from complications of a fall. He was 87.
Born in Indianapolis, he moved east to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked with renowned futurist Buckminster Fuller designing geodesic domes.
Mr. Wainwright was commissioned to create more than a dozen local sculptures and others in places such as Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, and Toronto.
“Never Green Tree,” commissioned in 1987 by the Cambridge Arts Council and located near the CambridgeSide Galleria mall, sends out prismatic colors when the wind activates aluminum cubes covered in Mylar. His mobile “The Lights at the End of the Tunnel” stood for years at the Porter Square MBTA station.
“WindWheels” originally was displayed in Logan Airport’s Terminal C. It was moved several times before being rededicated this year as part of Massport’s $4.5 million renovation of the corridor connecting East Boston to the airport. The sculpture now stands at the intersection of Neptune Road and Frankfort Street.
“The whole construction seems to me appropriate for an airport in that the air makes it work — it’s an obviously mechanical object like an aircraft,” Mr. Wainwright told Massport. “I hope it will entertain people arriving and departing, visiting and working at Logan Airport.”
Mr. Wainwright’s wife, Clara, founded Boston’s First Night celebration in 1976, and said she did so with her husband’s wholehearted support.
“When you do something crazy like that, and I had small children at the time, you stay up later and later at night and you get up early in the morning,” she said. “A lot of husbands wouldn’t have tolerated that. He was just the most supportive person.”
In the early years of First Night, Mr. Wainwright helped design installations. Once he made an oracle in the form of a giant bird suspended in the air, with great spinning wheels for eyes. Revelers ascended stairs to ask their fortune, and a voice responded.
The couple met at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, when he was teaching and she worked in the offices. They married in 1968.
Their son, Dedalus, an artist in New York City, recalled a large geodesic his father hung from a tree in their backyard, and many rubber-band-powered airplanes they flew together during competitions at MIT.
Mr. Wainwright left architecture in frustration.
“He felt most architects weren’t grounded in reality. They would come up with ambitious plans that someone else had to solve the problems for,” Dedalus said.
He had similar disdain for artists “who got a little full of themselves,” Dedalus added.
At cocktail parties, Dedalus recalled, Mr. Wainwright would often try to get to know a new acquaintance by asking, “What do you care about?”
In 1984, Globe critic Christine Temin noted a duality in Mr. Wainwright’s work, which included a fish on a bicycle and dancing frogs. She called his structures “seriously playful, or playfully serious.”
“For all his puns, Wainwright is essentially concerned with the elegance of movement and light,” she wrote. “The shapes turn gracefully and effortlessly; the purer, more abstract ones remind me of descriptions of ‘Feu d’artifice,’ that experimental ballet of Diaghilev’s which eliminated the sweaty imperfections of actual dancers in favor of colored lights darting about the stage.”
Born in 1924, Mr. Wainwright was the oldest of three sons. His father worked for Diamond Chain, their family’s business, which was founded in Indiana in 1890 and supplied the chain used in the Wright brothers’ first flying machine.
Mr. Wainwright trained as an engineer and architect at Purdue University, Institute of Design in Chicago, Cornell University, and MIT.
He and his first wife, Jane, met in college in Indiana. Their marriage ended in divorce.
When he quit teaching by the 1970s, Mr. Wainwright put away his suits and grew a beard. His wardrobe became a collection of T-shirts decorated with animals, especially marine creatures, and nature themes.
His sense of humor was mischievous. When he fell and broke a leg one winter night, EMTs asked the name of his doctor and his preferred hospital. Mr. Wainwright replied, “Dr. Kevorkian” and requested transport to Brookline Animal Hospital, his wife said.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Wainwright leaves four daughters, Sara of Watertown, Diane Connolly of Westport, Kristen of Cambridge, and Caroline of Needham; another son, Andy of Red Hook, N.Y.; a brother, Steve of Durham, N.C.; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
“He was my hero,” his daughter Sara said. “He was the person who you aspired to be like and be around. . . . He was a brilliant man and a kind man, but the most amazing thing about him was his depth of generosity. He took care of a lot of people and mentored a lot of young artists.”
Hollinger, who once shared Mr. Wainwright’s studio in Allston, said Mr. Wainwright and his wife helped give him courage to keep creating in the face of setbacks and plateaus.
“You feel like you have these two angels on your shoulder with Bill and Clara,” he said. “I’m one of hundreds of artists who feel the same way.”
A fall at home in 2002 left Mr. Wainwright with a brain injury and unable to speak. He became a skilled mime and would often draw to express himself. Still, his family said, aphasia was especially cruel for a man who loved deep conversations.
“He never had a yes or no answer for anything,” Dedalus said. “It was always, ‘That depends.’ Or, ‘You have to consider these things.’ ”
An exhibit of Mr. Wainwright’s work will open Sept. 7 at Maud Morgan Arts in Cambridge. An evening of shared stories about Mr. Wainwright will be held at 6 p.m. Oct. 10 at the gallery.
A memorial service at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, for which he was a trustee from 1971 to 1985, will be announced. Burial will be private.
Mr. Wainwright and his wife nurtured the kite festival at Franklin Park in the late 1970s during the aftermath of school desegregation and busing. He ran community workshops on kite making before the festival and operated a kite hospital during the event.
“It was something to bring the white community and the black community together again,” said his friend Jim Falck, a landscape designer. “Bill was a man who shared joy and pleasure with people, and his sculpture reflected that.”
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.