This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
Art aficionado Jean-Daniel Aubin lost his sight to glaucoma in 2012, so it had been years since he had seen one of his favourite Alfred Pellan paintings.
Last summer, Mr. Aubin, 64, absorbed the painting’s influence once again. A groundbreaking project combining art, graphic design and 3-D printing by graduate researcher Patricia Bérubé put the Pellan at the fingertips of Mr. Aubin and hundreds of other visually impaired people through silicone lines and textures.
“It was quite a discovery. It ignited an emotion I hadn’t felt in a long time,” said Mr. Aubin, who worked for years in the perfume industry and has always had in interest in style, design and art. “When you’re standing there for a moment in front of that painting, it’s like we are no longer blind.”
Ms. Bérubé’s two-year research project involved one iconic Quebec painting, but she hopes her research might one day put dozens of tactile versions of visual works into galleries. She has just started working on her PhD at Carleton University to push the idea further.
“It would be my big dream to find a way to do this with more paintings,” said Ms. Bérubé as she ran her fingers over her work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “There are a lot of challenges. For impressionistic paintings, we’d have to simplify things. We’re also starting of think about ways to integrate sound, too; for example, to say what colour you’re touching. There are a lot of avenues left to explore.”
Banner for the exposition “Prisme d’Yeux,” Mr. Pellan’s 1948 oil-on-canvas, which was part of an artists’ manifesto just prior to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, is a four-colour painting of simple shapes and lines displayed prominently at the museum. The work features seven eyes laid out on a flattened prism turned into an arrow. The title of work, painted when the Catholic Church was a powerful force in the province, plays on “dieu” and was seen as a provocation aimed at the clergy.
Ms. Bérubé’s reproduction hangs below the original and is displayed in two parts. First, a simplified black and white offers a silicone 3D feel for the painting’s lines. The second, complete version adds different textures for the four colours: White is smooth and relatively featureless interlocking blocks. Grey is a bit bumpier, with regularly spaced square holes. Red is more jarring, with round protrusions; while black stands out dramatically with squared rough bumps that drag against the fingers. All four colours are presented in braille in a legend just above the work.
Other projects around the world and at the museum have put art at fingertips, often through creating 3-D reliefs of works or touchable copies of sculpture. Integrating colour for paintings through new printing technology is a step further. “It put the painting straight into my head, like being plunged back in time,” said Mr. Aubin, who was one of the participants in the research project.
Before Ms. Bérubé, 30, started translating paintings into tactile language blind people can understand, she completed an art-history degree at the University of Quebec at Montreal after working as a graphic artist in video games and 3-D medical imaging.
The transition to academia was not easy, but her strong character drove her through the difficult change. “Patricia is a dynamic and extremely motivated young woman,” according to mentor and UQAM art historian Esther Trépanier. “She’s a visionary.”
After completing her undergrad degree two years ago, Ms. Bérubé was in the office of her academic supervisor, Emmanuel Château-Dutier, on the campus of the University of Montreal batting around ideas that might fuel a master’s degree.
She had a particular interest in French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix, whose experiments with colour influenced generations of painters. That ground was already well covered, particularly in Europe, they decided. “I was angry with myself. How am I going to find an angle on him that hasn’t been done? It’s going to gather dust and not help anyone,” she recounts now.
As she prepared to leave, bag over her shoulder, she told the professor she was frustrated she couldn’t find a more original idea than examining colour. “Some people can’t even see colour,” she added.
Mr. Château-Dutier asked her to sit down, and an idea was born.
Mr. Bérubé assembled a group of 13 visually impaired people who acted both as research subjects and partners. They helped decide how to represent textures and lines. An early prototype created by 3-D printer produced too many seams, which were terribly distracting. The same technology was then used to produce moulds to shape silicone that was more satisfactory.
The group decided a two-step presentation was better; including colour in the first introductory tableau was sensory overload. The participants were told little about the artwork they were sampling. In an early version, some participants were able to determine that eyes were part of the painting from their tactile experience, she said. “That was validation we were on the right track.”
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