– Story by David Wylie Photography by Lia Crowe
A room full of holes with light filtering through from all sides. An upside-down fully-furnished carpeted living room. Someone living inside a gallery exhibit inside a gallery exhibit. These are all examples of how Samuel Roy-Bois explores space and architecture in his creations.
He asks: we make things, but are things also making us?
The Okanagan-based visual artist uses a mixture of sculpture, installation and sound to create engagement between viewers and the built environment. Works by Roy-Bois, who is also an associate professor in Creative Studies and Visual Arts at UBCO, probe how architecture generates stories and narratives, and divides space to create different moments.
“I like to look at architecture as a type of object, like a chair, or a shirt or a car,” he says. “A house is also one object—it’s a type of object that defines a very specific type of relationship with us; it’s not something that we can hold, it’s more something that is holding us.”
Roy-Bois says he’s drawn to architecture because of its potential to provide limits to the world, and therefore limits to our exposure to the infinite. He’s intrigued by how people use the built environment to solve problems, and he sometimes creates a push-pull effect with his installations. In some cases, he allows gallery-goers into certain sections while keeping them out of others.
In his 2012 Vancouver installation I Had a Great Trip Despite a Brutal Feeling of Cognitive Dissonance, Roy-Bois divided the gallery space into two zones. He allowed the public access to the smaller section in the gallery, but not the larger one, where someone actually lived for a month, entering through their own private door.
He found the person through a Craigslist ad.
“People coming to the show might have heard that somebody was living in there but had no way to verify it. They could sit outside and imagine the person in that space and how they might be occupying the space, even picturing themselves living in there,” he says.
“I like when my projects are a bit of a journey, or a bit of a challenge—you’re not sure how you’re going to make it happen or what will happen; in this case, who’s going to answer that ad and how they will behave. There was a lot of unknown. If you’re doing a painting, you know that painting will behave and stay on the wall.”
Roy-Bois says a piece he created in 2003 called I Heard a Noise and I Ran Away still resonates in his work today. He built a small room and drilled holes into the walls and floor.
“There were holes in all the surfaces and there was a lighting system behind those walls. It was the beginning of a lot of stuff I’ve done after that. I feel very attached to that installation,” he says.
Roy-Bois has exhibited his sculptures and installations at local, national and international venues, including Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa; Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal; Simon Fraser University Galleries in Burnaby; Vancouver Art Gallery; and Point É́phémère in Paris.
His work is being honoured. The Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation presented Roy-Bois with a 2021 VIVA Award for visual artists in mid-career. He was surprised by the $15,000 award, which aims to contribute to the advancement of the visual arts in BC.
“It’s nice to see the work I’ve done in the past 10 years recognized,” he said.
The arts have attracted Roy-Bois since he was five years old, and he had dreams of becoming a painter. Encouraged by his dad to become an artist, his interest grew beyond painting.
“I felt that sculpture and installation offered possibilities that painting did not offer,” he says. “I could make stuff that didn’t come across as art right away; it looked a bit more ambiguous.”
Originally from Quebec City, Roy-Bois earned a BFA from Université Laval and an MFA from Concordia University. He carried on formally choosing to pursue the arts, but instead spending one year studying anthropology.
“It felt like a safer route,” he says with a laugh. “I’m glad that I did that, but I really felt in my element when I started to go to École D’art Visuel at Laval University in Quebec City.”
Roy-Bois met his wife, Larissa, in Montreal. The couple eventually moved to New York City where Roy-Bois worked in 2003 as a studio manager for an artist. He had a residency at the largest studio of his career to date—with Chashama, a non-profit arts organization based in NYC. The organization rented space in the heart of the Tribeca neighbourhood in downtown Manhattan, a couple blocks away from Ground Zero.
He did a project around the empty spaces in New York.
As the couple started a family, they moved to Vancouver to be closer to Larissa’s family.
Roy-Bois started at UBCO in 2013, and for the first few years he commuted between Vancouver and the Okanagan. About five years ago, they decided to settle in the Okanagan.
While there isn’t as much culture in the valley as in Vancouver or New York, there is a lot of potential for growth.
Access to space in Vancouver is challenging. In Kelowna, however, UBC is building a new campus downtown. Roy-Bois is involved in the development of new research spaces that his UBCO faculty is putting together—a mix of visual arts and new research spaces.
“UBC is a powerhouse, there is so much that we can do through that institution,” he says.
Roy-Bois’ latest work, Presences, ran in late 2020. Organized and circulated by the Kamloops Art Gallery, the exhibit travelled to the Esker Foundation in Calgary.
“It’s really looking at how we relate to objects and how everyday objects somehow define us. We fabricate them but they also, in return, construct the world that we live in,” he says.
“When installing the show, I spent a lot of time placing the work in space,” he says, adding that this included determining which piece viewers will see first, how to incorporate negative space and how the pieces speak to one another. “You move the pieces around and look for a secret narrative, an ambiguous narrative the work can provide.”