From mind to canvas: Creating art with synesthesia

 A paint palette with a variety of colors on the right; a poem on the left, which reads: Nymphs torque the palette, Darkness, astonishingly Atropos.  The prickled Psyche ricochets.  The timorous Prodigy poses,  Size rippling.  Words from other poems form two horizontal lines above and below the poem.

All original work: Laura Herman.

It was a red day in a green month. The peppery sounds of the piccolo floated out the doors of the band room as I hurried by. Late, I sprinted through the door into my seventh-grade science classroom, muttering an apology and my teacher’s name: a soft purple sprinkled with flecks of sandy brown. The class began as usual, boring rainbow words spilling out of his mouth. Suddenly, a sky-blue colored word fell off his tongue that would turn my world upside down: synesthesia.

“Synesthesia,” he said, “is the union of senses otherwise unconnected in a ‘normal’ brain.” He described Albert Einstein using shapes instead of numbers to complete mathematical algorithms and briefly scoffed at the absurd idea of colored letters.

This was a revelation to me: Could it be that none of my classmates saw our teacher’s name in purple with flecks of sandy brown? Were A’s not inherently fire-truck red nor Z’s metallic gray? Did not everyone find it efficient to memorize phone numbers according to their color palettes?

I immediately began to read every article I could find on this mysterious “disorder,” “disease,” “condition,” or “superpower.” It seemed as though researchers did not even know how to classify my sixth sense.

As it turns out, every day of my life, I have been wearing rainbow-colored glasses without realizing it. Cemented to my eyes like irremovable contact lenses, they turn letters into colors, music into tastes, and time into space. As soon as I got home that afternoon, I began interrogating my parents to find out if they too saw B as indigo or K as lavender. They stared at me, dumbfounded — undoubtedly questioning my sanity. It was in that moment — a blue hour and an orange minute — that I made the decision to discover why A is red, why rap music is salty, and why my perception of the world around me is invariably tinted by my beloved rainbow-colored glasses.

Perceptual research

Fast forward a few years, and I began working in a university laboratory studying human perception, attention, and cognition. Of course, my first project focused on synesthesia: I set out to deduce a correlation between certain letters’ association with certain colors. After that, I was hooked. To me, the human brain felt like our generation’s western frontier. We know so little about how we perceive the world around us, except that it is often hugely inaccurate — allowing wild fluctuations in attention, misconceived interactions, and sensory illusions galore.

Toward the end of my cognitive neuropsychology degree, I began to study one of the most difficult human perspectives to pin down — and one often avoided by cognitive scientists: that of artists and designers. How do you quantify creativity and harness artistry?

For the past two and a half years, I have worked at Adobe as a user experience researcher, studying users’ perceptions of — and interactions with — creative software. In particular, I have been researching our newest suite of iPad apps. It has certainly been an interesting experiential conundrum to pack decades worth of desktop tools’ cockpit-like functionality into nimble, streamlined, multi-touch interfaces. However, these streamlined interfaces — while perhaps difficult to construct — do make the creative experience more approachable and intuitive.

Exploring creativity

For years, art has been a passion of mine: my friends tease me that the first place I go upon arriving in a new location is always the local art museum. I have engaged in numerous art-based research projects. I have gone to academic conferences on artistic creativity. I have even been on the committee of several community art projects. But I did all of that without ever creating any art or thinking of myself as a member of the artistic community.

During the early days of the shelter-in-place order in the Bay Area, I found myself desperate for a distraction from the dark anxiety of the external world. When my only roommate decided to leave town, I needed a ritual to seek solace in. I plopped down on my sofa with my iPad and Apple Pencil, launched Adobe Fresco, a digital painting and drawing app, and stared at the blinking blank canvas in my lap.

For inspiration, I immediately turned to the most readily available prompt: My synesthesia. Actually, many synesthetes are composers, visual artists, musicians, and writers. Learning about them now, it seems as if I had long been suppressing my own artistic inclinations.

For my first project, I used the live oil brushes to transpose found words–poems, lyrics, phrases, etc. — into droplets of color. I even snuck in a few strokes with the mesmerizing watercolor brushes. In this way, words became microcosms of chromatic texture instead of the simple lines we call letters.

For my second project, I took discarded color palettes from an artist friend as inspiration. Using both Fresco and Adobe Photoshop on the iPad, I created compositions of discarded palettes and the poetics they provoked. I forced myself outside of my comfort zone by translating colors into words. (Typically, only words become colors.)

Each brushstroke in a palette contains a multitude of shades — similarly, each word contains a collection of hues in my synesthetic experience. I pored over dictionaries, searching for the lone entry that perfectly matched a given brushstroke. After each brushstroke had been paired with its semantic counterpart, I recombined the words into visual poetry. There were some pretty surprising poetic word-neighbors that came out of this creative process: an “abducted oeuvre,” a “torqueing nymph,” and even some “lagging tomfoolery.”

Owning your creativity

Still, this remained just a passion project — a way to stave off quarantine blues (or, more accurately, quarantine’s indigo hue). I had not thought much about potential next steps, until a friend — pursuing her own quarantine creativity by making music — encouraged me to share my work more broadly. I did not even know how to begin, but eventually I found a few virtual art shows and digital magazines that were accepting work.

One of my all-time favorite art venues, Austria-based Ars Electronica, had converted an arm of its traditionally in-person celebration of technology-based art into a virtual gallery format, with the help of ART domains. Well past midnight one evening, I chuckled as I submitted one of my pieces to their open call, never expecting it to be selected. Shortly thereafter, I received an acceptance that completely shook my view of myself as a non-artist.

None of us should wait for external validation from the supposed “art world” to view ourselves as true creatives, but, for better or worse, that is what it took for me. Over the course of the month when my piece was exhibited virtually, I found such joy in visiting the “showings” of fellow artists’ pieces of digital creativity.

Since then, several other pieces from these projects have found their place in zines, websites, and even private collections. I am finally able to say — without a shrug or a self-deprecating laugh — that I am a creative, and you can be, too. Why not plop down on your couch, grab a creative tool, and let your unique perceptual reality guide you?