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.