Canadian Couple Create Art that’s Accessible to All

Arts Southeast’s ON::View Artists-in-Residence Invite Participation By Beth Logan
June 25, 2024

Ten times a year established and emerging artists, working in all media, occupy an Arts Southeast studio that features a large, Bull Street-facing window. The ON::VIEW Artist Residency has been so named because of that window: The artists’ work is always on view, and passersby are encouraged to come inside to visit. Pedestrians witness the artists’ process as it unfolds in real time, seeing all the steps involved from concept to final execution.

It is an exciting residency program: a robust selection committee headed by Jon Witzky, director of exhibitions, fields applications from around the globe. Besides offering a free workspace, the nonprofit provides accommodation in the 5th Dimension Apartment, located just five blocks away, to comfortably house the artists during their stay. In the past, residents have come from such places as Savannah, Germany, Japan, England, California, and New Zealand.

This month, the artists hail from Ontario, Canada. I met David Bobier and Leslie Putnam just two days after they arrived in Savannah and was instantly put at ease in their presence; both are warm and engaging, politely interrupting each other to explain a concept or add a memory. One can tell this is a respectful and loving couple who, despite each having their own individual artistic practice, genuinely relish creating together.

Putnam says her practice is sculpture and installation, “I use every kind of medium depending on what I want to say.” She earned a five-year studio art degree from Concordia University in Montreal, moved to Europe, had a studio in Luxembourg, returned to Canada to earn a bachelor’s in education, and taught art (wrapped into science) for 20 years as a single parent raising two children, while still finding time to maintain her studio practice.

Bobier, also trained as an artist, graduated from Novia Scotia College of Art and Design, and later earned a master’s degree from the University of Windsor in Ontario. He says, “I came out of there doing more sound installation work,” but put his university teaching career and art practice on hold to become the primary caregiver for two adopted half-siblings, “both deaf and indigenous,” who he and his ex-wife decided to raise “culturally Deaf, meaning integrating them into the deaf community using American Sign Language.”

Bobier returned to sound installation work after attending a concert in Toronto put on by a Ryerson University department that focused on inclusive media design. “They were hosting this event with chairs created to vibrate in a cinema so that the deaf could experience the sound production of the movie through sound vibration.” He goes on, “A lot of the things that happen within the academic realm remain in the academic realm, but I saw a use for this out in the community,” both for the deaf and the autistic community. He became involved with their work as a visiting artist, later establishing and serving as Director of VibraFusionLab in London, Ontario in 2012. The Lab has worked with Deaf and disabled artists and musicians from Canada, the U.S., Holland, and the U.K. to create compositions and expand artistic practices designed to be experienced as tactile stimuli. It also strives to expand art audiences to include the Deaf and variously disabled.

Now married (“We’ve been together-we keep forgetting-for 14 or 15 years,” Putnam says), Putnam and Bobier often work collaboratively as the o’honey collective. “The first time we worked as o-honey we made a nest [out of willow branches] about the size of this room. It went to a few exhibitions, and visitors got into the nest and listened to a sound recording of the two of us talking about moving furniture around-about us nesting-while we documented their interactions via a webcam.” Inspired by the popularity of eagle nest cams, this project seems somewhat cute, but their collaborations have since evolved into a more therapeutic realm.

Putnam continues, “David works in the Deaf and disability community, and when I first met him and looked at my own art, it became apparent that it was extremely limited. It was mostly visual. That’s when I started creating environments, using sound, and using vibration.” This concept is difficult to understand until you experience it.

Putnam hands me her first vibro-tactile piece: a white ceramic structure shaped like an anatomical heart, covered in various textures reminiscent of corals or urchin spikes. It gently vibrates and makes quiet sounds-such as whale song-when I hold it. She next shows me another sculpture project created with two Canadian poets-a
vintage suitcase overflowing with green, felted tendrils. At the end of four particularly long tendrils are felted fidget-pods which one holds. As the pod softly vibrates, I hear poetry read by one of the collaborators (a disabled, queer, homebound, published poet) and the meditative vibrations of a singing bowl. “So, the idea is that four people can sit, and can feel it together.”

It is, quite simply, beautiful. Calming and peace-inducing.

For the ON::VIEW residency, o’honey collective is creating “a vibro-tactile sound quilt, a soundscape, sort of mapping out Savannah by sound and vibration.” Exhibitions and Residency Director Witzky tells me, “One of the most exciting things about David and Leslie’s work is that is made specifically for those who are traditionally left out of the art conversation – the deaf, blind, and disabled.”

Bobier’s “Private Eye,” incorporates found objects, and is both a tactile and visual representation of sound
Putnam explains, “We’ll use some found objects, some felting, incorporate braille. The idea being that if you are blind you could follow along and feel the quilt. The transducers will be behind the fabric and will play recordings David makes in Savannah.” Transducers change sound into vibration, which allows the audience to experience what is known as haptic empathy. Normally, galleries do not encourage touch, but “all our work is touchable. It’s to be experienced. A tactile and visual representation of sound.”

Back to the window: Even when the artists are not working in the studio, the public can still engage by laying hands onto the pane to feel, experience and hear a beautiful soundscape of susurrus waves and underwater sounds that Bobier recorded during a residency in the south of France. He has changed the window into a vibrotactile speaker by connecting it to one of his vibrotactile pillows. He often uses these pillows, sometimes up to 50 or 60 of them, to create greater accessibility for the Deaf and disabled in a live theater setting.

Putnam says, “As humans we do not access vibration like we used to. For example, originally when string quartets were moved onto a stage, musicians were furious as the audience could no longer “feel” the music. When I first started working with David, it became apparent that appreciating and analyzing art is all visual. We are missing so much. To have artists and audiences who have been left out able to participate is so important.”

Bobier adds, “It’s just all about communicating. Art can be very elitist. But we want it to be accessible to all.”

Bobier and Putnam’s collaborative ON::VIEW Residency runs from June 13-July 5. They will give an artists’ talk on Saturday, June 29, at 2 p.m. at Arts Southeast, 2301 Bull St. Their project finale will be on view during First Friday in Starland, Friday, July 28 from 5-9 p.m. Find out more at Follow Putnam on Instagram @lputnaml and follow Bobier’s VibraFusionLab projects @vibrafusionlab.

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