Les Yeux: old eyes get youth cure
By Holly Lake
Black, white, big and bold, Les Yeux have kept a close eye on things from the western edge of the University of Ottawa campus since 1973. More than a bird’s eye view, the vantage point chosen by professor of visual arts and renowned Canadian printmaker James Boyd offers a panoramic vista: the majestic Parliament Buildings to the right, the Rideau Canal with its historic flower gardens and flow of human activity winding along in front, and the Pretoria Street bridge to the left. Cars and buses rush by, and a steady stream of students passes on the sidewalk, often oblivious to the fact that they’re being watched.
Although large, Les Yeux aren’t always visible. Pass in the wrong direction and you might not even notice them. Stand too close and you’ll likely struggle to see beyond the pattern of dots and blots. These eyes are best admired from afar. That’s when they’re clearest and most in focus.
Captured by their gaze
Near or far, however, André Lalonde always took notice. Dating back to 1973 when he took undergrad classes in the physics building adorned by the eyes—and later as a professor of earth sciences and dean of the faculty of science—he was always captured by their gaze.
“He’d always thought they were really cool, particularly the interface between art and science,” says Tony Fowler, a friend and colleague who spent 25 years teaching alongside Lalonde. “As an amateur astronomer, he’s also had a real interest in patterns.”
Before his death due to cancer on December 21, 2012, André E. Lalonde brightened the days of his colleagues, students, and friends during his many years at the University of Ottawa. Throughout his career, he bridged the gap between disciplines and infused his ever-growing Faculty with a strong sense of belonging. Undoubtedly, he will be greatly missed by the entire university community.
Time wasn’t kind
During his final years at the University, André Lalonde was dismayed to see that the eyes looked sad. Time had not been kind to them. Exposure had faded the paint, and vines had crept in. A tree blocked one eye’s view, with its scratching branches aging it prematurely. So when he stepped down earlier this year and the University was looking for a way to recognize his five years as dean, Lalonde asked that Les Yeux be restored.
A fundraising campaign was launched to cover the $35,000 project, and the Science Students’ Association was among the first to contribute—a whopping $3,000. President Jayme Lewthwaite says it was the least they could do for all that Lalonde had done for them.
“André was special. A lot of us considered him as an uncle. He genuinely cared and made us feel important, that our opinion was valued.”
Lalonde often joked that he felt like a student who’d infiltrated the administration. “His door was always open. If we had a problem, we could walk right in and he’d make time for us. It’s pretty awesome for a dean to be like that,” says Lewthwaite.
Les Yeux caught artist’s eye
Local restoration firm Expographiq was hired to refurbish Les Yeux to their former glory. Artist Luc Doucet had watched the mural deteriorate over the years and quipped that restoring it was something he’d always had his “eye” on. He got to work during the summer of 2012 and after power washing the wall, applied high-quality semi-translucent primer.
“My worry was that I wouldn’t be able to see through it. Thankfully, I could. Then I took my time and contoured every detail before filling them in.”
Doucet worked in the mornings, as once the afternoon sun hit the wall his paint became sticky on contact. Three weeks later, the tree now gone, he was able to admire the lift he’d given the eyes. Lalonde came by several times while Doucet worked to chat, and was grateful to see the restoration take shape.
“He told me this was for his retirement. It was touching for me to be a part of that,” Doucet says. “I’m happy to have been able to help continue something that’s been there so long.”
The post-makeover unveiling took place in September to an appreciative crowd of professors, administrators and students.
A fitting legacy
“He was pretty excited about it,” Lewthwaite says of Lalonde, noting she and several students later visited him at home where he shared before and after pictures.
“The fact that he asked to mark his time as dean with something everyone could benefit from fits with his humble nature. He didn’t want anything with his name on it or any recognition. He was pretty modest, always behind the scenes. Never out for the glory.”
Les Yeux, newly restored. Photo: Bonnie Findley