Moving at the Speed of Light


Artist Jean-Jacques Gaudel paints with light

Written by Brett Levine

Photography by Edward Badham

“When I turned 65, I got an earring, a tattoo, and a motorcycle,” artist Jean-Jacques Gaudel reveals, sitting in his north-facing studio, bathed in natural light, high above the city of Birmingham. Gaudel never would have anticipated that the decision to purchase a motorcycle would result in a life-threatening injury that left him hospitalized for a month, confined to a hospital bed at home for a further month and a half, and still recovering almost a year later. “I began working on Light Dreams, my new project for the Alys Stephens Center, over a year ago,” he reflects, “but for almost the last eight months, until a few weeks ago, I had been doing it while recovering in a series of hospital–style beds.” Light Dreams, a multi-part architectural projection and intervention that will transform an exterior façade of the Stephens Center, was in many ways a key motivator for his recovery during this challenging time.

Surrounded by a myriad of collections, including animal skeletons, exquisite Chinese calligraphy brushes, Indonesian writing tools and a somewhat unsettling collection of doll heads, one can see the elements that Gaudel has brought to life. “Working in Adobe After Effects is a challenge,” he smiles, “in part because every element has to be animated individually. While I have played with Maya, another software program that creates three dimensional virtual objects, I find those unrealistic and prefer layering two-dimensional photographs of real objects and simply using the software to animate them in a 3D space with sound effects and music.”

Gaudel arrived in Birmingham as part of a trip he was making in a Volkswagen camper from New York City to Brazil. “We were literally driving down 20th Street on the way out of town when someone waved to us. We could’ve simply thought he was crazy and kept going, but for whatever reason we stopped.” The person waving Gaudel down was a French student who introduced him to a number of other French people, and an American who eventually became his wife. “Who would have thought that from such a seemingly chance decision I would have met Rachel, who has been my wife for 37 years.”

Brazilian laws required Gaudel and his friend to return their van to its country of origin, so he booked it as luggage on a ship and returned to France. He was back in Birmingham shortly thereafter, where he married Rachel and became immersed in the city’s artistic community. “People like Amasa Smith, Frank Fleming, Dick Jemison, and Nall welcomed me, and that allowed my shift from engineering to the arts to really begin.”

Working digitally was not always Gaudel’s main focus. In room after room, it becomes clear that he has worked with, and mastered, a wide range of media. “Although I trained as a mechanical engineer, my creative practice began through an opportunity to work in interiors. Although I had always drawn,” he continues, “I focused initially on furniture design, eventually designing a wide range of pieces that had a distinctly Memphis-influenced aesthetic.”

Furniture design and interiors simply weren’t enough for Gaudel, however, so he changed his approach entirely. “I like to change,” he laughs. “I found that when I got tired of one medium – like painting – I would move into another, such as sculpture. When I tired of that, I would move on to something else.”

In late 2010, his friend Christophe Nicolet showed Gaudel some architectural projection projects that were critically, conceptually and visually engaging with architecture and public spaces. “I knew almost instantly that this was a field I wanted to explore,” Gaudel says, “because it allowed me to take my passions for drawing, architecture, and design and to consider how we mapped ideas onto objects themselves.”  He taught himself AfterEffects, and began to animate objects from his collection. “I had begun to document the works Rachel and I had acquired, and I had thousands and thousands of images. They were categorized by type, easily navigable on my computer, and things that I was already passionate about. I started to work with these objects to create surrealistic films.”

His first major Architectural Mapping took place at the 2011 Paint the Town Red Digital Art Festival. A technical hitch meant that the projector failed to scale the image to the building, something Gaudel struggled with. “I was concerned with the idea of a mapping project that became simply a projection,” he says, somewhat resigned. “In the end, we thought it would be best to present the project as it was. A year later,” he smiles, “we had the opportunity to do it again, with the equipment functioning as we had always imagined and the mapping matching the built environment.” The full story of this experience, from conception to completion, can be found at architecturalmapping.blogspot.com.

This spring, Gaudel will present a new mapping project that will form the centerpiece of the Light Dreams project at the Alys Stephens Center. “One of the most important opportunities this invitation provided was the possibility of activating the space for several hours. What I realized very quickly,” he continues, “was that my component of the project would probably only involve perhaps twenty minutes of animation. So, I decided to reach out to a number of other artists, designers, dancers, and other cultural creators to conceive of a much larger, more community focused project.” Now, under the leadership of Alys Stephens Programming Consultant, Jessica Simpson, Gaudel’s project partners include: filmmaker Randal Crow, artist Randy Gachet and his students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, photographer Liesa Cole and Tony Rodio, computer maverick Joe Walker, lighting designer Christophe Nicolet, video jockeys/artists John and  Katy Gaiser,  artist Heather Spencer Holmes, musician John Scalici, choreographer/dancer Mary Foshee, sculptor Sarah Heath, and an interactive video game from UAB’s Computer and Information Sciences Department.

For two nights on May 2 and 3, audiences will experience Gaudel’s unique aural and visual interventions into the Alys Stephens Center’s architecture. Over a series of five interrelated dream sequences, Gaudel will explore a range of influences and experiences, including an homage to innovative stop-motion filmmakers the Quay Brothers. “In many ways my collections reflect the experiences and influences I have had throughout my life.”  Now, thanks to his meticulous dedication to photographing his collection, this vision can be shared through animation. “I was always interested in the animation process,” Gaudel remarks, “and I do believe my experiences as an engineer and an artist gave me the confidence to basically teach myself the software and learn how to make it do what I wanted it to.”

Gaudel pauses when asked if the accident changed his approach to the project. “For a while I thought it might,” he explains, “but in many ways I was only waylaid by the accident. I had done some tests on the architecture, and I already had all the ideas in Photoshop. In the end, it didn’t change the sequences themselves. Although I hadn’t actually done the animations, I knew what I wanted them to be.”

From interior designer to painter, from sculptor to animator, from furniture designer to homebuilder, Jean-Jacques Gaudel has followed his passions. He uses his diverse skills and unwavering commitment to change as the motivations to continue innovating across a range of creative fields. Even a life-threatening injury can not divert him from his commitment to moving forward, seemingly moving almost at the speed of light, but in everyday life, not only in his dreams.

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