It is with much delight and gratitude that I write today’s post. Synesthesia has been a topic that has fascinated me for many years. (New to my site? You should view my previous posts: Synesthesia in Art & Fashion and Joan Mitchell) It’s a topic I’ve researched extensively. I was recently invited to share my research with Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, published by The University of Warwick.
This article encapsulates my experience of teaching creativity within a higher education curriculum. Creativity often eludes common understanding because it involves using different conceptual streams of thought, often times developing unconsciously and manifesting in the prized “eureka” moment. In 2009, I began explaining the neurological condition of synaesthesia and later introduced this phenomenology in a course designed to cultivate creativity to first year fashion design students. There are many challenges in teaching creativity. Through teaching this course, I discovered that the first challenge is making the students conscious of their own qualitative beliefs on creativity and art. The second is creating exercises to challenge and alter these beliefs, thus forming a new way of thinking and experiencing the world. The most resistance from my students arose when experimenting with non-representational art. They did not have a conscious framework for making and evaluating abstract art. Introducing synaesthesia, a neurologically-based condition that “merges” two or more sensory pathways in the brain, gave my students a framework for discovery. Understanding sensory modalities and ways in which these modalities can blended together in synaesthesia proved to be a gateway to creativity in many of my students. The scope of this article chronicles how I developed my teaching methodology, the results it created in my classroom, as well as its effects on my own artistic practice. (To read the full article, please visit: Teaching Synaesthesia as a Gateway to Creativity)
Many thanks to Dr. Karen Simecek, Catherine Snyder, Neira Kapo, David Lautz, Terry Hall, Dawn Marie Forsyth, and to all of my former students. This article would not have been possible without your assistance, encouragement, inspiration, and dedication to the pursuit of creativity.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
When people ask me about my work as an artist, I really only talk about my abstract paintings. Yet I’ve had so many phases and interests during my creative development. I really started as a portrait artist. The story begins simply enough. I was looking to take a class that fulfilled multiple requirements during my first year of college. Lo and behold, I found a writing intensive figure drawing class. It sounded interesting enough, and it knocked out 3 requirements in a single class. That’s how I met Neil Kosh (1926-2010).
The class met twice a week for a 3 hour time period. A short, bald, mischievous man greeted us with a big smile and a stack of papers. He explained that he would teach us how to see properly, and also how to improve our writing. We went through the syllabus, course materials, and expectations. I’d later understand how my calculated choice of class would changed my life.
Twice a week, Neil would smash our per-existing beliefs about what we were seeing and drawing. He would point out that we were drawing what we thought we saw, instead of what was really there. “You keep thinking in terms of objects – oh there is a nose, and an eye, and a chin. But you’re not drawing the shapes of color that are really there. That’s how you draw more accurately. Stop thinking that you’re drawing a person. Start drawing the shapes that make up the whole. Pay attention to the colors and how they change from warm to cold in relation to each other on the paper.”
Shedding these perceptions was really challenging. It was unlearning a subtle, habitual way of seeing the world. I’d continually make the same mistakes over and over again. He’d laugh at me while holding his suspenders and say “No! The face is the wrong size! How big do you think your face is?” I drew my perception of the size of my own face. He laughed again, handed me a marker. He instructed me to do the following: “Go into the bathroom and trace the outline of your face in the mirror. Then really look at it.” I did what he told me, and was surprised to see how small the outline was. At that moment, I understood the difference between seeing and perceiving.
That is when my work became really authentic. I would notice the interplay of shapes and void spaces. My mind began to develop a non-verbal language when I started to draw people. Instead of thinking in labels like “hair, nose, mouth”, I started to think in shapes, color, and the amount of negative spaces in between.
Neil also always played eclectic music from around the world. We started swapping music, and I have many CDs we exchanged from those classes. I noticed the effect that music had on my art. It became really clear that my best work would unfold as I listed to unrecognizable music – either a foreign language or something completely instrumental. I still like to create with instrumental or electronic music – anything that helps me enter the realm of non-verbal thinking.
I stopped making portraits – and all visual art – during a really difficult time of my life. During my senior year of college, my parents divorce. The events were really catastrophic, particularly because it involved illness and addiction. In what seemed the blink of an eye, I lost my home, my parents, and any shred of security. I pulled away from creating. I isolated from friends. I had to focus all of my energy on survival.
It took a long time for me to get back to making art. Writing became more of an outlet for me as my life began to sort itself out. As things improved and I felt more secure, I started to create again. First, I explored landscapes. Then abstract work. After my last series of paintings, I decided to enroll in a class at The Art Students League. (New to my site? You should read Ineffable: Fantasy & Reality, which describes my last series of paintings.)
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just showed up with a large sketchbook and a box of pastels. Soon enough, I was able to access that non-verbal way of thinking. All those lessons from Neil were still fresh in my mind. Yet there was something additive to the works I am making now. The portraits I’ve been making in class now have more spontaneity. I feel free to scribble and suggest things like hair and shadows. I’m not so timid to use bold colors and wild gestures.
While I drawing, I’m very much in another realm of existence. It’s difficult to explain – maybe ineffable – but I become so enthralled in the act of creating that the work seems to flow out of me. It feels like I’m not drawing it, but that it is an expression of my reaction to the colors and shapes in the environment, and an almost involuntary movement of my hands. I’ll make 6 or 7 portraits a class. When I go home and review them alone, I’m fascinated by the results. It seems like I’m drawing moods, emotions, souls, and historical scenes rather than a model in Manhattan.
“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ The judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.” – Ram Dass
Fantasy and reality . . . are they really so different? Both are products of our own thinking, fears, and desire. The subtle difference boils down to audience. Reality is the act we play before our family, friends, and other people. Fantasy is the private movie that replays in the minds, shrouded in secrecy.
Fantasies are nestled deep within. While they can be a great source of personal pleasure, the thought of making a fantasy real – dragging it into the light of day and sharing the experience with another human being – can bring a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. This is largely due to social conditioning. Being too free is taboo. It requires honesty, communication, and vulnerability.
The conditioning is so subtle, that I fail to see its effects on me. It seems like I dance between the belief that my fantasies could easily become my reality and the fear that they’re just deluded and unobtainable ideals. In moments of clarity, I realize that my own thoughts are what give me power or enslave me. I can recognize when my mind starts to play a repetitive loop of fear, insecurity, and doubt. These emotions are what really hold me back. While I can’t stop the steam of negative thoughts from arising, I can acknowledge it and move past them.
I primarily create art alone. It gives me a sense of security, since whatever I decide to make isn’t judged. Recently, I was able to realize a series of paintings that I had dreamed of making over the past three years. This series, however, required that I work with someone in a really intimate and vulnerable way. For a long time, this series could only exist as a fantasy in my mind because I had a deeply rooted sense of inadequacy. I never felt that my work was good enough, that I was attractive enough, or even worthy enough to receive what I truly wanted.
As I’ve started to discover ways to stop labeling and judging myself, I notice my life gets better. Dropping the labels and needing to identify my thoughts as good or bad makes me feel more confident. I feel a freedom to pursue the things that make me happy. Maintaining this balance of freedom and security takes a lot of work. It constantly is challenged, either by old habits or new experiences.
Making this painting series was not without challenges. This was definitely in the realm of new experiences for me. To say that art is my life would be a gross understatement. It has been my voice when I had none as a child. It has led me to foreign countries, new friends, and employment. It’s been a tool to help me make sense of the pain I’ve experienced with failures, breakups, deaths, and all of my darkest moments where I no faith left in myself. It is also a place where all the voices of comparison, shame, and fear become silent – a place where I can reclaim my own joy. Nothing makes me happier than a can of paint or a box of pastels.
To invite someone else to take part in painting with me was a big risk. I felt scared. I felt vulnerable. I felt nervous. All of the warning bells and whistles of self-doubt and shame started to sound, particularly when I met someone who inspired me to push past my fears. In his presence, I felt an almost paralyzing timidity take over me. Was I good enough? Was it safe to be the real me? Would I be judged? As some time passed, the fear subsided and I felt free – free of shame or anxiety, free to be my authentic self, free to experiment and make mistakes, and free to express my feelings and ideas to another human being. The experience is difficult to describe in words. Liberation, bliss, trust . . . all hint at this ineffable feeling that washed over me with each layer of paint we applied to one another. Yet these words only hint at what I experienced.
Reality is predicated on thoughts and beliefs. I no longer have to focus on the misfortunes of the past or judging myself. Instead, I can direct my focus towards the pursuit of happiness, the fulfillment of my fantasies. It takes courage to do this. But in finding the courage to believe, anything is possible.
“What could – what should – be done with all the time that lies ahead of us, open and unshaped? Feather light in its freedom, and lead heavy in its uncertainty. Is it a wish, dreamlike and nostalgic, to stand once again at that point in life and be able to take a completely different direction, to the one that has made us who we are?” – Pascal Mercier
“We leave something of ourselves behind, when we leave a place, we stay there even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there. We travel to ourselves when we go to a place where we have covered a stretch of our life, no matter how brief it may have been. But by traveling to ourselves, we must confront our own loneliness. And isn’t it so everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness? Isn’t that why we renounce all the things we will regret at the end of our lives?” – Pascal Mercier
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” – Lewis Carroll
There is a great video that illustrates the difference between fantasy and historically accurate costuming. Character development in film and animation is largely controlled by garments. Illustrators and costumers are faced with a challenge of making the character believable and accurate, while still appealing to modern tastes and fashions. Reconciling historical and modern tastes can be a challenge. This is largely due to the fact that ideal beauty changes over the course of time. (New to my site? You should view my previous posts, Movies, Beauty, & Ideal Beauty and A Return to the Ideal.) The video shows Disney characters alongside with what their actual everyday garments would have been. I think each of these looks is great, although I prefer the historically correct versions better. Enjoy!