Julia: I think I learned about synesthesia in college. Honestly, I wonder if I really have much of it at all. I always associated numbers and letters with colors, but just in my head. Until I learned about synesthesia, I thought everyone did that. I don’t see colors when I look at text on a page, it’s more like in my mind the letter D has to be green, 8 is a cool, dark color, etc. That said, becoming aware of it and learning how our senses can be connected has certainly changed how I see the world. I like what you said in your article “The ability to successfully link apparently unrelated ideas and concepts is the very definition of creativity.” I think I’ve subconsciously explored that in both my collage and floral work— grouping unexpected things together based on color and using repetitive “rhythmic lines and shapes.” The collages I’ve been making started off more as a design exercise before turning into their own obsession…
Monica: Do you have any images of your work for collages and floral arrangements that you think best illustrate the ideas of repetitive rhythmic lines and shapes,and also your exploration of linking unrelated ideas and concepts? For me, my paintings are illustrations of both of these concepts. I find that picking out the paints and materials is one big meditation. I stand in front of cans and tubes of paint silently. Then, a particular color will grab my attention and a sort of creative, ecstatic energy guides me. I’m very absorbed by the process of picking out colors; they each seem to have this emotional language that captures my attention. It’s an experience that is really outside of words and letters, so it can be difficult to explain . . . but I feel a variety of emotions and states of being when I look at different hues and colors. This is one of the types of synesthesia, and Joan Mitchell talked a lot about the emotional states of her paintings this when describing her creative process.
A stunningly beautiful girl, Psyche, is born after two older sisters. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about the goddess Venus. Venus becomes angry that her temples are falling to ruin, so she plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Cupid, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most vile, hideous man alive. But when Cupid sees Psyche in her radiant glory, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.
Meanwhile, Psyche and her family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche’s father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Psyche bravely follows the instructions and falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.
She lives happily with him, never seeing him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche’s beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her. When she sees the beautiful Cupid asleep on her bed, she weeps for her lack of faith. Cupid awakens and deserts her because Love cannot live where there is no trust. Cupid returns to his mother, Venus, who again decides to enact revenge on the beautiful girl. Psyche, meanwhile, journeys all over the land to find Cupid.
She decides to go to Venus herself in a plea for love and forgiveness, and when she finally sees Venus, the great goddess laughs aloud. Venus shows her a heap of seeds and tells her that she must sort them all in one night’s time if she wants to see Cupid again. This task is impossible for one person alone, but ants pity Psyche and sort the seeds for her. Shocked, Venus then orders Psyche to sleep on the cold ground and eat only a piece of bread for dinner. But Psyche survives the night easily. Finally, Venus commands her to retrieve a golden fleece from the river. She almost drowns herself in the river because of her sorrow, but a reed speaks to her and suggests that she collect the golden pieces of fleece from the thorny briar that catches it. Psyche follows these instructions and returns a sizable quantity to Venus. The amazed goddess, still at it, now orders Psyche to fill a flask from the mouth of the River Styx. When Psyche reaches the head of the river, she realizes that this task seems impossible because the rocks are so dangerous. This time, an eagle helps her and fills the flask. Venus still does not give in. She challenges Psyche to go into the underworld and have Persephone put some of her beauty in a box. Miraculously, Psyche succeeds. On her way toward giving the box to Venus, she becomes curious, opens the box, and instantly falls asleep.Meanwhile, Cupid looks for Psyche and finds her sleeping. He awakens her, puts the sleeping spell back in the box, and takes her to Zeus to request her immortality. Zeus grants the request and makes Psyche an immortal goddess. She and Cupid are married. (Summary taken from Gradesaver)
Teaching doesn’t come with an instruction manual. I’d never planned to be a teacher. Yet almost four years ago, I found myself in front of a classroom. To say that I was anxious would be an understatement. Luckily, it got easier with practice. The very first course I taught was called Fashion Seminar at FIDM. Part theory, part portfolio development, I was responsible for teaching fashion theory along with art. The portfolio consisted of a series of art assignments. The learning outcome was to take an inspiration source and create new and meaningful artwork from it. Each week, we would have a new focus: collage, found object, textile design, and so forth. There was one assignment that initially gave me any problems. It was called multiple sensory.
Untitled by Joan Mitchell, 1969. Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
I understood the concept. Say your inspiration source is a tree. How does it feel to touch its bark? Try drawing that sensation. Obviously, there is no “wrong” way to do this assignment. Yet it caused so much confusion the first time I tried to explain this to the students. For me, this was frustrating. I didn’t seem to have the right words to explain the desired result. But then, I remembered learning about synesthesia. I decided to do a little research and present my findings to the class.
Synesthesia is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory pathway. Synesthetes, those that have synesthesia, will see colors when they hear sound or touch objects. (I’ve written about this before! Please read my post Synesthesia in Art & Fashion. It’s one of my favorites!) When I research, I go to libraries and book stores. I build a sort of book fort around myself, and get lost in thought for hours. I stumbled across several great books, but the best one was a small catalog called Synesthesia: Art & the Mind. It’s fantastic, and I have a copy in my personal collection.
This catalog is how I became acquainted with Joan Mitchell. And it was love at first sight! There is a small essay by Patricia Albers in this catalog, and it explains all about Joan Mitchell and how her synesthesia influenced her paintings. Albers explains:
Joan Mitchell had several forms of synesthesia, including personality-color synesthesia, in which other people induce colors . . .
Heel, Sit, Stay by Joan Mitchell, 1977. Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
It turns out that Mitchell also had “colored-hearing” synesthesia, or that she would see shapes and colors while listening to music. She also has eidetic memory (aka photographic memory) which means that instead of remembering, she would quite literally relive the past. Albers goes on to explain:
” ‘I carry my landscapes around with me’ she often said, in the form of images that ‘roosted inside’ her. As involved as she was with trees, rivers, fields, clouds, weather, and so on, she did not work out-of-doors, but rather mentally ‘framed’ whatever spoke to her: ‘the motion is made still like a fish trapped in ice. It is trapped in the painting. My mind is like an album of photographs and paintings.’ “
Tilleul by Joan Mitchell, 1978. Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
Lehigh University currently has a show on Joan Mitchell’s work. It doesn’t touch on her synesthesia, but I sat in front of these large scale works and just marveled at them. I really enjoyed the painting above. This canvas just looks like a tree to me. I stared at it for a while, wondering if I was looking up at branches. It was like going for a walk through Mitchell’s personal landscape. This painting really made me happy. And there was just so much to look at! It’s even more magical up-close. Look at the details:
When I explained synesthesia and showed Mitchell’s artwork to my students, I saw a drastic improvement on the work they produced. There is a really freeing sense that developed in my classroom. Everyone can experiencing a merging of the senses to some degree. But the very idea stimulates creativity. Sensations, emotions – they aren’t logical, nor do they possess a recognizable visual form. So relating feelings and perceptions to colors and forms in art was almost liberating to the students. Their creations didn’t have to look like anything, but there was always a recognizable correlation to their inspiration.
Untitled by Joan Mitchell, c. 1952. Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
As I walked through the Mitchell exhibit, I had the real sense of experiencing nature. A tree, a leaf, branches, flowers, rain, sunshine through a window – I had the sensations of experiencing it the way Mitchell must have. This painting made me think of blossoming flowers. At first, I saw one large flower. But as I approached the canvas, it seemed there were small flowers scattered about.
It reminded me of the critiques I had with my students in LA. Somehow, it all makes sense. If you are in the Bethlehem area, please drop in to see the show! It is at the Zoellner Art Center until May 2013.
Untitled by Joan Mitchell, 1992. Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
Here is a synopsis I wrote back in college for a philosophy of physics class. Enjoy!
According to Kuhn, normal science is based on a collective assumption of the scientific community that the world functions in a specific way. This assumption is a paradigm, or a model, for the rest of the community and their successive theories, experiments, and basic way of perceiving the physical world. The scientific community relies on paradigms, and measures all successive theories and discoveries to these pre-existing beliefs. This ridged concept of reality and science makes it difficult for new theories and discoveries to develop, as they endanger the tradition of science and prove the paradigm as erroneous.
Generally, a discovery of some type of anomaly causes a shift in the scientific community, which Kuhn labels a “scientific revolution“. As the term revolution implies, the scientific community is thus held responsible for correcting and reconstructing the entire history of science prior to the new discovery. This is a huge and arduous task, and is met with strong resistance.
Several paradigms exist, creating a school of thought or point of reference. This helps to create questions, methods of evaluating and determining areas of relevance, and help to find meaning in data. These paradigms are crucial in evaluating theoretical models, as well as scientific history, as they are the tools of interpretation and allow its followers to develop a professional discipline.
As I see it, Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions is a logical theory which proves science to be provisional, or in a constant state of flux. Paradigms are crucial in refining and evaluating scientific discoveries, but they also tend to limit and constrict new theories and knowledge of the physical world. Paradigms are historically based, and extremely hard to challenge as they are held to be self-evident and infallible to scientists. However, it is important that people continue to challenge this history and to find and explain anomalies manifest in the physical world. These radical and unusual theories based on anomalies further our understanding and advance our society.