Bespoken Art: Turning any sound into a unique piece of art 1

Blast writer Katy Dycus recorded the word “Boston” for this piece of art.

“What is that?” your guest asks, pointing to a framed image on your living room wall.

“That’s my voice.”

“What does it say?”

A memorable story follows.

For just $29 and up, you can have your voice, or any sound for that matter, turned into art. There are just three simple steps: choose the size, color and canvas and record and upload your sound, and the company will print and ship your original piece of art.

David Caulkins, the founder and owner of Bespoken Art, came up with the idea after returning from a two-year teaching stint in Japan. The Texas native and former speech communication major merged his interests in communication, travel and story into a vibrant new way to interact with the world. So far, his company has received orders from every continent except for Antarctica.

Bespoken Art transcends language and cultural barriers. “After the U.S., it’s Canada, then Europe, that sends the most orders. South America is next,” Caulkins said.

When brainstorming ideas for a new business, Caulkins came across a company that makes art from your DNA and then places it on canvas. He then wondered what else could be personalized. The answer: voice art.

Caulkins’ uncle runs Milwaukee Glove Company, a business that’s been in the family for more than 100 years. “I learned a lot about small business after working for him one summer, and to this day, he is still one of my business mentors,” he said.

In line with this entrepreneurial spirit, the idea for Bespoken Art quickly evolved into questions that would launch the business: What kinds of sounds can we do and how can these best be displayed? How will we do recordings if clients live on the other side of the world? What medium do we use and how do we market it? What are the different options?

“Some people have emailed me saying, ‘I had this idea 10 years ago but never did anything about it. Good for you.’” Perhaps that is the mark of a creative person: one who finds a creative pursuit and then actually pursues it.

“Every voice is different and unique,” he said, “meaning that every image generated is also unique. Pieces can be made in any language and can also be created from sounds other than voices. Regardless of the audio, each piece tells a story.”

So what story does the name “Bespoken” tell? To answer that question, Caulkins points us to England, where he lived for three years. Apparently, some “Britishisms” rubbed off on Caulkins, inspiring the company’s namesake. “Bespoke” is a familiar British adjective that means “custom made” or “custom tailored,” but it refers to more than just clothing. Caulkins was not the first to settle on the name, either. There are two different interior design studios in Houston called “Bespoke.” Perhaps Americans really are “barmy” over “Britishisms” after all, as Alex Williams’ recent article in the New York Times style section suggests.

“Not many people in the U.S. get the name, but I’ve had a few people in Britain say, ‘I get it,’” Caulkins said.

Just as Caulkins wasn’t the first to use a “Britishism” in the name of business, he wasn’t the only one to come up with the idea for his business, either. “When I started out, I scoured the Internet to see if anyone else was doing this,” he said. “No one was at the time. Turns out there was another company simultaneously working on the same concept (Voice Prints Art) that launched around the time of Bespoken Art. Since I’ve started doing this, there have been three more companies that have also started. People realize it’s a good idea.” For instance, a company called Vapor Sky produces sound art uncannily similar to Bespoken Art, except for its shades of neon. And Epic Frequency converts famous speeches into art. One company, Voice Art Gallery, even employs a three step process similar to Bespoken Art.

So, given the stiff competition, what sets Bespoken Art apart? For one, the company offers more canvas options than its competitors, including the “double-pane print,” where two distinct sound waves are featured side by side (a popular purchase for couples). Bespoken is also the only one of its kind to provide a special Song Portrait option, allowing the customer to feature a full-length track on canvas.

“Competition is a good thing,” Caulkins said. “It forces you to be better and to be creative. For example, in addition to offering personalized pieces, we’ve recently started creating artistic prints, such as the new City Sound portrait images, which blend city skylines with sound waves created from that city’s street sounds.” (Following our interview, Caulkins very graciously gifted one of these Houston City Sound prints to me).

Caulkins is all about giving. Bespoken Art gives 5 percent of its profits to Smile Train International, a charity that provides cleft-repair surgery to children around the world. “I wanted to choose a charity people would recognize, as well as one that does amazing work,” Caulkins said. “The Bible talks pretty seriously about caring for children, orphans and those in need, so I take it seriously as well.”

Original art created by Blast writer Katy Dycus’ voice recording, “Gonna park the car behind the bar in Harvard’s Yard.”

Furthering this passion for Christian charity, Caulkins spends a large portion of his week working as director for a non-profit, inner city ministry in Houston called Emmaus Ministries. “As an entrepreneur, it is easy to get consumed with your business,” he said. “Thankfully, being part of this ministry and working with individuals who are in some really dark and tough situations has served as a constant reminder that there is much more to life than mere business or entrepreneurial aspirations. It’s hard to be preoccupied by Bespoken if throughout the work week I’m also making jail visits or talking on the phone with someone who is coming off a meth addiction and needs help getting into rehab.”

As for the future of Bespoken Art, Caulkins sees potential for growth. “The neat thing about this idea is that you can do absolutely anything!” he said. “Earlier this year I created a piece from a delivery room recording of a baby’s first cry, and I’ve also done multiple prints of various heartbeats. I even had someone recently send in a recording of a person beating on their chest like Tarzan…I’m not sure what it was for, though.”

Orders have indeed been as varied as the sound recordings themselves. Caulkins has created sound wave prints for a professional concert pianist in South Africa, an executive producer’s assistant on a popular CBS show, and HotelRED, a boutique hotel in Madison, Wis., which ordered pieces for every room.

Just as he’s involved with sounds and voices, Caulkins is undeniably involved in the lives of people. Near the end of my visit with him, friends started trickling into his Houston Heights home for a BBQ he was hosting that evening. The Heights is an eclectic neighborhood district of Houston, and according to a National Geographic Traveler article, “maintains a quirky sense of individuality” and “flourishes as a destination for foodies, architecture buffs, and creative types.” Caulkins seems to epitomize this description. Soon after our interview, he began preparing for this outdoor BBQ inclusive of venison meat, chicken and cedar-plank salmon. And lots and lots of friends.