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Art of the Synesthetes

Imagine being able to see the colour orange when you hear an ‘A’ note, to taste apples when you hear the name ‘Brian’, or feel the physical sensation of a warm fuzzy blanket when you listen to “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles. To most people, that would probably sound like some make-believe superpower in a comic book or a crazy, psychedelic trip on hallucinogens, right? However, for about 4% of the world’s population, these sensations are a constant and involuntary reality caused by a neurological condition known as synaesthesia. Little is known about the causes of this condition, but, simply put: synaesthesia is essentially a “cross-wiring” of the pathways in the brain that are responsible for the perception of the five senses, allowing people who have this condition, known as synesthetes, to involuntarily experience stimuli from one sense when a completely different sense is triggered. There are tens of documented types of synaesthesia ranging from auditory-tactile synaesthesia (being able to feel sounds) to lexical-gustatory synaesthesia (experiencing distinct tastes attributed to different words).

My first experience learning about this fascinating condition was a few years back in high school. I had noticed that one of my friends had what looked like a small picture of a whimsical galaxy in the back of her phone case. When I asked her about it, she explained that, in fact, it was not a galaxy at all, but a visual representation of one of her favourite song— “Me” by the 1975—painted by synesthete and artist, Jack Coulter.

Coulter has a type of synaesthesia called chromesthesia, which causes him to see and associate colours with sounds, and his work largely consists of what he sees when he listens to music. If you take a look at his Instagram account where he posts a great deal of his work, your eyes will be met with a (slightly chaotic) mosaic of brilliant hues and organic shapes; if you click on a photo of any one of his vibrant creations, you’ll likely see the name of the song Coulter was listening to while creating the painting in the caption. Pockets of red swirled into a mix of black and white are Coulter ’s physical manifestation of “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse, while hints of magenta and pink on the edges of a largely green, teal, and turquoise canvas represents “Adore You” by Harry Styles. He even has a painting of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor which he painted live in a special collaboration with the London Chamber Orchestra.

While Coulter ’s condition makes him an extremely unique artist, he is just one of many synesthetes who have channelled their condition into art, and he is certainly not the first. Arguably one of the most famous abstract artists of all time, Wassily Kandinsky, was a known synesthete who was both a skilled painter and a cellist, and who, like Coulter, also had chromesthesia. Many of Kandinsky’s abstract works were his own interpretations of his linked perceptions of music and colour, emphasising how each musical note had a specific shade and hue of colour attached to it. In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote that, “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key”. It is known that Kandinsky had somewhat of a spiritual relationship with colour, possessing a passion for the deeper meaning of each and every hue; there is no doubt that his profound appreciation for colour was a direct result of his condition, as pieces from his life’s work display kaleidoscopes of bright hues. Coulter, Kandinsky, and other synesthete visual artists, however, only represent a portion of synesthetes in the creative world; there are a host of musicians who channel this condition into their work as well. Musical icon Billy Joel has expressed his relationship with the condition publicly, describing that not only does he visualise certain colours in his music, but that certain letters also have col- ours associated with them as well. For Joel, his softer and more lethargic songs such as “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” or “And So It Goes” are associated with dreamy shades of blue and green, while more energetic and upbeat songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” evoke bright hues of red and orange. Furthermore, letters themselves also appear to Joel as specific colours, with vowels being bright blues or greens, and consonants such as ‘t’ and ‘s’ are bold reds and oranges. Joel takes this all into account when writing lyrics and melodies in his music as he can visualise what he wants his songs to look like when they’re finished, and it can be argued that the incorporation of his condition into his songwriting process is part of the reason why his music is so well-crafted.

Synaesthesia in and of itself is an extremely fascinating condition, but what is even more fascinating about it are the artists who utilise this condition as a driving force in creating their masterpieces. The thought of being able to see a kaleidoscope of colour when I listen to my favourite songs and then turn around and be able to paint what I see is a compel- ling one, and it is astonishing how that is just an everyday reality for a small portion of the world’s population. Truly a gift for some, I think synaesthesia really could be hailed as a real life superpower, as some of the world’s most talented creative minds have their conditions to thank for their unique and brilliant works of art.

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