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  • Still life, until seen

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2009
A tap dancer in a mural appears to whirl and shuffle as a result of an intricate fusion of art, science, technology, exquisite craftsmanship, and the viewer’s own movement and vision.

Caren B. Les,

On artist Rufus Butler Seder’s broad tableaux of glass tiles, you perceive a snowy owl opening its wings, wolves lifting their heads to howl and a dolphin swimming forward to have a closer look at you, then splashing its way up through waves. These optically animated installations can be viewed in venues such as the Taiwan Aquarium, the North Carolina Zoological Society in Asheboro, the Scientific Center in Kuwait and the California Science Center in Los Angeles.


Artist Rufus Butler Seder’s representation of wolves is on view at the North Carolina Zoological Society.

In the eyes of passing beholders, Seder’s large-scale murals, which require no electricity, moving parts or special lighting, appear to illustrate people or animals in motion. The murals are made up of individually handcrafted, lens-shaped, ribbed tiles, each representing a phase of movement.

The North Carolina Zoological Society hosts this mural illustrating polar bears.

The artist initially designs each phase of movement by using motion picture footage or by drawing from scratch. He combines analog and digital techniques to compress the final visuals into “coded images” that are fused indelibly into each glass tile. When an observer walks by, the tiles optically unscramble the coded images frame by frame, and the observer’s brain links the rapid succession of images together, creating the illusion of movement.

Seder crafts glass tiles to create murals that give the illusion of movement. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Seder’s inspiration came from a friend’s large-scale experimental zoetrope. The setup consisted of a wall-mounted 10-ft-long drawing of fish in various phases of motion and lit with fluorescent lights. A strip of black cardboard of the same length with a series of vertical slits cut into it was positioned in front of the drawing. Someone running alongside this arrangement and peering through the slits could get an imprecise sense of movement.

 This Lifetiles mural is installed at Children’s Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham.

An experienced filmmaker and film teacher, Seder had the idea of using lenses to create the effect of movement from inanimate images – to basically get one image to change to another. He began by experimenting with flip-book drawings and magnifying glasses, graduating to the use of clear 1/4-in.-thick plastic rods, which he glued together side by side to create a lenticular sheet. When he put this sheet over his drawing of staggered stripes – which looked like a circle superimposed over a triangle – he found that he could view the circle, or the triangle, as he stepped from side to side.

A mural of dolphins in motion is shown at the Taiwan Aquarium.

Seder continued to develop his illusory creation using strips of black tape on giant sheets of glass and double-exposure photographs of friends shown in two phases of motion. At this point, the two phases of motion would repeat or “cycle” about three times. Further experimentation enabled him to capture up to three phases of movement clearly with the rod-based lenticular sheets – beyond that, the images would mix together.

This installation is at the North Carolina Zoological Society.

Further experimentation led him to consider the optical attributes of the former Vari-Vue company’s “wiggle pictures,” found in Cracker Jack boxes, and of a type of glass made in the 1930s called Band-Lite.

Seder’s artistic endeavors eventually led him to employ glass tiles that could support up to six phases of movement. He designed the last phase of movement to link up with the first phase, to create an illusion of continuous movement.

Seder’s murals are shown at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.

He later abandoned his striped glass and multiple-exposure technique and began to use an Amiga computer to scan the images. He broke the images into stripes to create coded images in the computer. He took the coded image printouts and re-photographed them, creating exact-size prints to glue onto the back of glass tiles.

This image depicts the Lifetiles at the Scientific Center in Kuwait.

Further refinements in the illusory process enabled him to create his durable and low-maintenance art forms. To see video imagery of Seder’s Lifetiles, visit, the Web site of his company Eye Think Inc., which is based in Waltham, Mass.

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