Synesthesia, meaning “joined sensation,” is a neurological phenomenon that combines two or more of the senses, producing cross-modal perception in the brain. While it occurs in about 4% of the population, it’s 7 times more common in artists. You could call it “the artist’s lens,” even if you’re not, at this moment, puckered up from the taste of a laughing alphabet or hearing the sunset.
Melissa S. McCracken of Kansas City, Missouri says she ‘sees’ music, and so has decided to paint what she sees. “Basically, my brain is cross-wired,” says Melissa. “I experience the ‘wrong’ sensation to certain stimuli. Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful ‘brain malfunction’ of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song.” To give you an idea, we’ve put up some examples of Melissa’s work with this letter online.
Artists make a life of tuning in. Observations, memories, feelings and associations are combined to express the connections between things. You could say it’s the artist’s job to make metaphors — because metaphors create meaning and link us together. “One eye sees, the other feels,” said Paul Klee. As we work, we blend sensory zones.
David Hockney, Wassily Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Nikola Tesla all had synesthesia. French composer Olivier Messiaen invented chord structures that described colour, making notations in his scores. Vladamir Nabakov wrote about synesthesia in his autobiography, “Speak, Memory.” Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman, electronic artist Aphex Twin and classical pianist Helene Grimaud and are all synesthetes — shaking up a personal, poetic cocktail of realities, turning hallucination into art.
PS: “The boy tasted the twinkling light. He listened to the colours, and if he closed his eyes, the colours brightened, and grew pure. He watched the notes rise and bow, and the beats align and ready themselves to march. Finally, the melody appeared, and performed a dance in front of him.” (Wax Tailor and the Phonovisions Symphonic Orchestra, from “Dusty Rainbow From The Dark”
“I paint music.” (Melissa S. McCracken)
Esoterica: At the end of this month, a year will have passed since we said good-bye to Robert Genn. In honour of this, and in keeping with Robert and Sara’s vision for an online resource of information and connectivity for artists, we’ll soon launch a new Painter’s Keys website. The new site includes an updated interface where readers can navigate through the entire archive of Letters easily. The complete Letter will now be read on the website, with a snippet and link still sent personally to each subscriber by email. As a result, featured artist listings, art show and workshop listings will be seen by every reader, as will our expanded comments section. Thank you for your friendship and for sharing in this evolution — it’s our wish that you continue to find the Painter’s Keys inspiring and beneficial.