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How A Synesthetic Artist Sees Sounds And Turns Music Into Paintings

May 9, 2018

Artist Christina Eve has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition that entwines the senses. In Christina Eve's case, she sees sounds. Last year she sent me a handful of her colorful paintings she made based on music she heard and the visions she had when she listened. I was so fascinated by the way she interprets songs with imagery that I asked her to document the process. You can watch her paint the music of Moses Sumney and Bleachers in the videos below and read her describe what her brain is like on music. – All Songs Considered's Bob Boilen


I'd never be a visual artist if I was not first a musician. I have a deep love of music and especially love how a good song can arrest your heart or communicate things for which there are no words. I began studying music as a child and went on to get a degree in classical music. I geek-out over music theory and love the thrill of performing on stage with other musicians. Yet beyond all this, I experience another dimension of music that most do not.

I have synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that involuntarily merges senses in the brain. Auditory stimuli activate my visual sense, so whenever I hear sound I see a unique light and color show. Listening to music is always a remarkable experience as the ears, eyes, heart, and mind are all inundated. For me, music reveals shimmering lights and geometric textures in bright colors, and light and dark swell and spin around each other.

As a synesthetic visual artist, I translate what I hear into visible form so others can see the beauty of sound. My artwork begins with a song I've fallen in love with, emotionally, aurally, and visually. In the studio, I put the song on loop and listen and watch to see what shapes and colors appear. I pull out corresponding bottles of ink and begin spilling them on the canvas. I blow air into the color, creating a contrasting lightness to the dark, and form the ink into shapes with palette knives and sponges.

In my work for Bleachers' "Don't Take The Money," I focus on the many sounds contained in the pre-chorus. Each main vocal phrase ("In my dreams, I'm to blame / Different sides of the bed / Roll your eyes, shave my head") produces rapidly-ascending towers of hot pink and lime-green. The bass, plus the interspersed, digitized backing vocals in lower octaves, provide a dark and bubbly foundation. The percussion and all the fun sounds moving in and out add-in flashes of different hues and textures. I collect all these colors and shape them into what I see in the buildup and hit just before chorus: a staircase-shaped, sunshine-colored explosion.

The very first chord of Moses Sumney's "Doomed" is an oceanic, dark blue paired with a rich vermilion. Moses' voice is interesting to watch – sometimes it's a saturated charcoal-black, sometimes it's a smooth aqua – and that captivating, quick, occasional catch in his voice that sounds like an alto sax... it's a moment of sandpaper-textured gold. Warm light enters the scene the first time Moses sings "Am I doomed?" As the song progresses, I'm emotionally affected by the sonic expansion and the emotional heaviness of the lyrics, and I incorporate it into the work. The soaring, far-away vocal cries in the background are a writhing purple. At the apex of the song, light pushes back the dark colors, and recedes again as the song draws back into itself.

As I've continued to create synesthetic artwork, I've discovered that much of the aurally-stimulated imagery I see can also effectively communicate other invisible concepts, like joy or despair or loneliness or hope. There are some sounds that produce a distinct type of deep and powerfully evocative imagery and these rich visuals are able to depict difficult ideas and emotions that might be too elusive to paint, or even verbally express. Music is what allows me to create synesthetic artwork, offering a visual voice to the hidden, complex, and inexpressible experiences of humanity.

More from Christina Eve can be found here

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