Teaching doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Â I’d never planned to be a teacher. Â Yet almost four years ago, I found myself in front of a classroom. Â To say that I was anxious would be an understatement. Â Luckily, it got easier with practice. Â The very first course I taught was called Fashion Seminar at FIDM. Â Part theory, part portfolio development, I was responsible for teaching fashion theory along with art. Â The portfolio consisted of a series of art assignments. Â 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. Â There was one assignment that initially gave me any problems. Â It was called multiple sensory.
Untitled by Joan Mitchell, 1969. Â Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
I understood the concept. Â Say your inspiration source is a tree. Â How does it feel to touch its bark? Â Try drawing that sensation. Â Obviously, there is no “wrong” way to do this assignment. Â Yet it caused so much confusion the first time I tried to explain this to the students. Â For me, this was frustrating. Â I didn’t seem to have the right words to explain the desired result. Â But then, I remembered learning about synesthesia. Â I decided to do a little research and present my findings to the class.
Detail. Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
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. Â (I’ve written about this before! Â Please read my post Synesthesia in Art & Fashion. Â It’s one of my favorites!) Â When I research, I go to libraries and book stores. Â I build a sort of book fort around myself, and get lost in thought for hours. Â I stumbled across several great books, but the best one was a small catalog called Synesthesia: Art & the Mind. Â It’s fantastic, and I have a copy in my personal collection.
Untitled by Joan Mitchell, 1978. Â Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
This catalog is how I became acquainted with Joan Mitchell. Â And it was love at first sight! Â 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. Â Albers explains:
Joan Mitchell had several forms of synesthesia, including personality-color synesthesia, in which other people induce colors . . .
Â Heel, Sit, Stay by Joan Mitchell, 1977. Â 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. Â She also has eidetic memory (aka photographic memory) which means that instead of remembering, she would quite literally relive the past. Â Albers goes on to explain:
” ‘I carry my landscapes around with me’ she often said, in the form of images that ‘roosted inside’ her. Â 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. Â It is trapped in the painting. Â My mind is like an album of photographs and paintings.’ “
Tilleul by Joan Mitchell, 1978. Â Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
Lehigh University currently has a show on Joan Mitchell’s work. Â It doesn’t touch on her synesthesia, but I sat in front of these large scale works and just marveled at them. Â I really enjoyed the paintingÂ above. This canvas just looks like a tree to me. Â I stared at it for a while, wondering if I was looking up at branches. Â It was like going for a walk through Mitchell’s personal landscape. Â This painting really made me happy. Â And there was just so much to look at! Â It’s even more magical up-close. Â Look at the details:
Details.Â Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
When I explained synesthesia and showed Mitchell’s artwork to my students, I saw a drastic improvement on the work they produced. Â There is a really freeing sense that developed in my classroom. Â Everyone can experiencing a merging of the senses to some degree. Â But the very idea stimulates creativity. Â Sensations, emotions – they aren’t logical, nor do they possess a recognizable visual form. Â So relating feelings and perceptions to colors and forms in art was almost liberating to the students. Â 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. Â 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. Â A tree, a leaf, branches, flowers, rain, sunshine through a window – I had the sensations of experiencing it the way Mitchell must have. Â This painting made me think of blossoming flowers. Â At first, I saw one large flower. Â But as I approached the canvas, it seemed there were small flowers scattered about.
Detail.Â Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.
It reminded me of the critiques I had with my students in LA. Â Somehow, it all makes sense. Â If you are in the Bethlehem area, please drop in to see the show! Â It is at the Zoellner Art Center until May 2013.
Untitled by Joan Mitchell, 1992. Â Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Cheim & Read Gallery, and Lehigh University.Â