Artist Clara Wainwright is best known for founding First Night, the city-wide, alcohol-free New Year’s bash. William, or Bill, Wainwright is a noted sculptor and public art pioneer. Together Bill and Clara have nurtured countless creative collaborations in Boston — over four decades — while making their own work and overcoming some major obstacles. Their story is Part 2 in WBUR’s series “Visionaries.”
You could call Bill and Clara Wainwright a creative power couple, but their artistic visions have most always been for or about other people — often big, diverse groups of people — a whole city’s worth, if possible. Many of their ideas — for First Night, the Boston Kite Festival and all kinds of art “happenings” — were hatched at Bill and Clara’s dining room table, over good food and wine, with friends and collaborators.
“This table has played such a role in our lives,” Clara explained on my recent visit, “because, first of all, it’s round and therefore it’s very democratic.”
The table is in Bill and Clara’s airy Cambridge loft, which feels like a giant gallery. Her colorful fabric art, combined with his whimsical but geometrically precise sculptures, tell the couple’s story visually, like a retrospective in a museum. Clara silently rolls one of Bill’s light, round pieces across the floor.
“We just call them the spheres. It’s like a pet!” she said, laughing.
Bill’s attraction to spheres can be traced back to the 1950s. As an architectural engineering student at MIT, Bill worked with futurist Buckminster Fuller, designing geodesic domes for military use during the Cold War.
Bill also yearned to use his mathematical mind to make sculptures. He would go on to be a public art pioneer — not just in Boston, but throughout the U.S. His elegant, kinetic, refractive pieces shimmer in city parks, hospitals and malls. Some look like double helices; he calls others Nevergreen Trees. Maybe you’ve seen Bill’s school of colorful fish swimming beneath the Tobin Bridge.
Clara clearly adores her husband’s sense of play and creativity.
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“My feeling is that the world is so short of things that delight in this day and age,” she said. “You know when you go out in the street, and you see people, that life is hard. And which would you rather come across as you came into a little a park — a Bill Wainwright or a Damien Hirst of dead insects floating in formaldehyde?”
Clara is a glowing 75-year-old who looks far younger — and funkier — than her years. Her hair is super white. Bill’s 87-year-old eyes twinkle behind glasses held together with a wire.
The couple met at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the ’60s. He was teaching architecture. She worked for the department. They became each other’s muses. Every room of their home is filled with amusing works of art they’ve made for each other over the years. With affection, Clara recalled earrings Bill gave her when they first started dating.
“Well, I had one pair that he referred to as ‘hostility cubes.’ They were gold-plated, and if anyone hugged me, both I and the person would be stabbed in the cheek!” she said.
Bill’s trust grew, though, and the couple married in 1969 at Boston’s City Hall. A few years later, Clara, who was always busy with her art, decided she was tired of going to the same old New Year’s Eve parties where people got drunk and searched for someone to kiss at midnight. A hope-filled romantic, she recalled skating on Squam Lake on Dec. 31 as a teenager.
“And this boy I had a crush on showed up, and we skated together all over the lake,” she said. “And that was just the most totally romantic way to start the new year! I was always looking for something that had that kind of magic.”
So Clara and Bill gathered together a motley crew of like-minded citizens. They sat around their table brainstorming a fantastical alternative New Year’s Eve celebration.
Clara remembers one person saying, “We’ll make the churches the social center of the city like they used to be when America was a young country.” A psychiatrist added, “And we should blur the difference between the observer and the observed.” Someone else chimed in with, “We’ll make the whole city a stage, so anywhere an artist wants to perform we’ll get them the space — whether it’s the top of the Hancock or whatever!”
And that’s what they did — in 1976. Clara’s fundraising and organizing efforts earned her an enduring title: founding mother of First Night.
All the while Bill was fashioning his own artistic identity as he transitioned from engineer to sculptor, and Clara continued making eye-popping quilts — more at home in galleries than bedrooms. In fact, two weeks after the first First Night, her first solo show opened at the Addison Gallery in Andover.
Things clicked along at a steady clip for the productive artistic couple. Works by both Wainwrights are in the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s permanent collection. Nick Capasso has been a curator there for 20 years and drew a comparison to show why they would appear to make an unlikely pair.
“It just seems so odd, because Bill is an engineer and a scientist at heart, who’s a sculptor and uses hard industrial materials and lots of geometric things,” he said, adding the contrast, “Whereas Clara, on the other hand, makes quilts! And they’re soft and they’re organic and they’re narrative. What unites them is that they are catalysts for collaboration in the community. That’s what they do.”
Clara does that by making “community quilts” with groups: troubled teens, the Gloucester Fisherman’s wives, Tibetan immigrants. She spends hours with them, stitching together their stories using vibrant fabrics. In her studio, Clara showed me a quilt composed of self-portraits made by 15-year-olds. The images are personal and moving.
“I decided that if I wanted to be considered important to the city of Boston, I really had to work with people who didn’t have art in their lives,” Clara said.
For Bill’s part, he wanted to create art that everyone could see. In 1982, he got his chance. Massport officials requested proposals for the very first public sculpture at Logan Airport. Bill submitted drawings for a piece he dubbed “Windwheels” — but the funding wasn’t in place.
“I got behind it because I believe that public art is a good thing, and Boston needed it then and needs it now,” Lionel Spiro told me on a sunny afternoon at Logan. The longtime arts supporter founded the Charrette Corporation and was part of the “Windwheels” selection committee. He recalled drumming up the money for “Windwheels” from 30 other people who adored Bill as much as he did. Twenty years earlier, Bill had been Spiro’s teacher and friend at Harvard.
“I believed in Bill Wainwright,” Spiro said. “He was always a talented, generous, outgoing person who gave to many, many things in the community and to many people.”
“Windwheels,” a giant pinwheel composed of smaller pinwheels, was eventually installed in Terminal C. Then a cavalcade of commissions followed, for sites here in Massachusetts, but also in New York, Arizona and Texas. According to Clara, things somehow always came easy to Bill.
“You know, when you see how many people struggle as artists to do anything out in the world, Bill just seems to have some kind of magic cloud over him,” she said.
But everything changed in the summer of 2002. Bill suffered a devastating accident one night at home.
“He was reaching out to shut the door because the dog had come in,” Clara recounted in a subdued voice, “and he fell forward — then grabbed the side of the door — and fell out backwards onto a rock. So it was very dramatic, middle of the night, down a long driveway situation.”
To this day, they still don’t know if a stroke caused Bill to fall, or if the fall triggered a stroke, but the event caused bruising on the artist’s brain.
Doctors put Bill in a drug-induced coma. His family waited to see how — or if — he would recover. About a week later, Bill regained consciousness, but Dedalus Wainwright — the youngest of Bill and Clara’s six children — remembers how upsetting it was to learn his dad had lost the use of his hands and his ability to speak.
“With the aphasia came this incredible frustration and a degree of depression,” Dedalus said, “I think because Bill is a sculptor, but he is also a conversationalist. And one of the things that he I think has loved most in the world is to talk with people and to share ideas.”
“After the accident, he still went to his studio every day, it’s just he wasn’t really making work,” Clara said. “And he always had amazing eye-hand coordination, I mean he could just weld, free-hand, these amazing things. And then he had no eye-hand coordination, and so he just went into retirement.”
As he healed, Bill regained 95 percent of his mobility — but not his speech. Now, instead of talking about ideas, the artist communicates with gestures, facial expressions and drawings. Dedalus, now 41, has learned to interpret them, and said he’s gotten to know his father in a new way.
The entire Wainwright family has rallied around Bill. Dedalus is also a sculptor and started sharing his dad’s studio in Allston a few years ago. It’s called the Sculptor’s Workshop and Bill created it so young artists could access affordable space and expensive equipment.
Clara’s studio is right across the street. I asked her how she’s coped with what’s happened to her husband, and she replied that she did what she always does.
“I think of myself as having just an exceptionally lucky life — and yet I’ve lost a granddaughter, and I’ve lost a potential son-in-law, and Bill’s accident,” she said. “But somehow — I don’t know — being an artist I’m able to, you know, process all that information and transform it into art.”
Then about three years after his accident, Bill did something surprising: he decided to accept select commissions again, with help from Dedalus and other young sculptors. Last year, Massport asked Bill to recreate “Windwheels” because the original Logan piece had suffered the ravages of time. Finding a few words, Bill recalled the excitement he felt for his very first public sculpture, saying, “Yes,” and “oh man!”
Bill and Clara are known for this kind of resilience, as well as their contagious optimism. Everyone I spoke to for this story commented on the couple’s lack of ego, constant mentoring and ability to get things done. That said, does Clara see herself and her husband as “visionary”?
“Well, I have a lot of visions!” she sang out with a laugh, then added, “I mean I’m 75 — and he’s 87 — so at a certain point you travel a little slower than you did before. But I figure there’s a lot of time ahead to do crazy things.”
Massport will unveil the reincarnated “Windwheels” sculpture at Logan on May 7.