Seeing Sound and Emotion Through Art
Interview led by: Walter Cabal | cabalcrafted.com
Greetings Maker's Movement readers, Walter from Cabal Crafted here kicking off the first of my interviews with select contributors from Issue 3 of Maker’s Magazine: The Blues Issue. Check in every Tuesday of January to read about a new creative and their relationship with The Blues.
This week we’re interviewing Christina Eve, a visual artist and Synesthete - someone who physiologically sees colours when she hears music. She tries to translate what she sees into a visual experience and Christina’s interests overlap into topics like grief and spirituality - perfect intersections for our #embracetheblues series.
Christina, how long have you been aware of your Synesthesia, and when did you begin utilizing your gift to create art?
Synesthesia is a neurological condition, those that possess it experience an involuntary linking of the senses. In my case, whenever I hear sound, my visual senses are simultaneously stimulated, so I see unique colours and lights corresponding to what I hear. Undoubtedly, this led to a love for music from a young age. I began studying music as a child and went on to obtain a degree in classical music performance. Somehow I managed to make it all they way through university surrounded by and collaborating with all these musicians and the topic of synesthesia never came up.
Seeing sound is my reality and all I've ever known, so I just thought everyone else "sees" music like I do. When friends and I would play and listen to great pieces and proclaim them beautiful or powerful, I assumed we were also referencing the colours associated with those sounds. It wasn't until my mid-20's that I realized not everyone sees sound, and I was heartbroken to learn this. As if you'd been informed that the entire world only sees in black in white, and you're the only one that sees colour. This motivated me to start painting songs so that others could see the visual richness of sound. I started with just a couple pieces, since I had no artistic training and didn't really know how to properly use art materials. I struggled to accurately convey what I saw, so I didn't produce very much until about two years ago, when I finally found a medium (ink) that was able to capture the spontaneous fluidity of what sounds look like. As I practiced and produced more, I discovered that much of the aurally stimulated imagery I was depicting also effectively communicated other invisible concepts, like joy or despair or loneliness or dissociation.
My current artistic focus is to use musical imagery to give voice to the those complex and often inexpressible experiences of humanity as a way to offer empathy and compassion to others.
As someone deeply interested in poetry, I know that Synesthesia is also the name of a literary technique where the characteristics of one sense (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound) are attributed to another. For example : seeing the lights dim one octave, or in your case hearing the colour blue.) Can you talk about how your ability to perceive colours in sounds adds new elements to the way you view reality?
Most definitely. I think my synesthesia automatically programs me to view the world differently than most. Nothing is only what is appears to be, everything contains hidden dimensions of beautiful complexity. Perhaps creatives and artists of all genres view reality this way; when we experience something significant or striking, we seek to translate its richness poetically (whether through literal poetry, or art or music or whatever form it may be). We create these poetic versions in order to communicate that hiddenness, that complexity that resonates with our soul, and in doing so, we can connect to others who see it, and illuminate it for those who didn't see it before.
For example, your reference of lights dimming one octave; I've never heard that, but when I read it, I thought, YES! Lights do dim in octaves, don't they?! That's a perfect description. And I'm sitting here drinking a gorgeous cup of oolong...its taste and odour is evoking emotions like saudade (a feeling of sad loss or longing, and the loneliness of abandonment) and colours of golden tinged-green. That's so much more satisfying than just saying, "What a good cup of tea."
Precisely! There’s something about language that’s sometimes, limiting isn’t there? One of my favourite characteristics of your work is your interest in grief and spirituality. If you’re comfortable with it, can you tell us a little bit about how an experience of grief has helped to bring what you call your most “beautiful and fully alive” self?
Ah, I wish I could say that I am my most beautiful and fully alive self. I'm so not. Right now I am a suicidal shell of myself, waiting for that redemption. I shared a short version of how I got here in a recent Instagram post that I reference/edit here:
About five years ago my husband suddenly became very seriously ill. He was only 27 years old at the time, and the life we just started together quickly fell apart in significant ways. His illness was merely the beginning. Afterwards came an unprecedented cascade of loss and pain that reverberates even today. I wasn't able to cope and ended up shattered. In the darkest moments, I long for death and wonder for what purpose some of us go through significant suffering that seems unnecessarily excessive and senseless. And yet even though my faith is reduced to a speck of dust, there is still a voice that says it is not for nothing; it will all be redeemed somehow. Most days I struggle to believe it. But I know that descending to these depths gives us greater empathy for others who are hurting. In the midst of the pain, because of the pain, we can create and communicate what words can't. Through our art we can offer hope or comfort. Or perhaps even more significantly, just sit in the ashes alongside those for whom hope is invisible.
Thank you so much for your vulnerability. It’s refreshing to me. Regarding the blues, it’s my thought that creative people can help the modern culture develop a vocabulary for sadness. My thought is that readers might be able to find creative ways to speak about their emotions taking cues from artists like you and other creatives in different mediums. What are some images that you may have used to speak with other people about your feelings regarding your experience with grief?
Yes! Creatives are absolutely invaluable in the modern culture. When, through our art, we are able to reveal these hidden aspects of human experiences, like hope in the midst of despair, compassion in the throes of pain, life in the face of death, or even just empathizing with something like loneliness...this is a unique and life-giving balm to a hurting culture. This is how artists can be burden-lifters and care for souls in a culture. Encouraging others to go beyond the superficial and shallow, to be contemplative, honest, and offer compassion about what is meaningful creates beauty in itself and the community we all long for.
I'm heavily influenced by the art and writings of Makoto Fujimura, who is qualified to be as passionate as he is about this very subject; he talks much about the intersection of art, faith, suffering, and hope. His quote from "Golden Sea" is what motivated me to take my work seriously:
"It does not have to do with whether you can buy or sell the work. it has to do with who you are, and what you were built to do, and how honestly you can use those things to point to the future. When artists are not able to do that, the entire culture suffers."
In addition to "To Live is Death," some of my pieces that communicate difficult emotions include "Dissociative Daydream," which I've written about in the past: As a synesthete, there are only a handful of musicians I've found whose sounds can produce a distinct type of deep and powerfully evocative imagery for me. Often, these types of rich visuals are able to depict difficult ideas and emotions that were too elusive to paint until I saw their aurally-produced images. In this case, Radiohead's "Daydreaming" stimulates sights that so accurately convey what it feels like to be in a dissociative state which is induced when reality is too overwhelming or painful to tolerate. This piece intends to communicate to those who have not experienced detachment from reality this blurry and hazy space, where time is distorted, and there is a dazed sense of numb peace.
In another Radiohead-inspired piece, "True Love Waits" comes from an experience of saudade; a deeply sad longing for love lost, and the loneliness of abandonment.
That strikes a personal chord with me because Radiohead is one of the bands that continually brings my wife and I together in our different backgrounds of loss and melancholy. Those two songs from the new album are so close to our heart because the soundscapes, as you know well, are the right “colour” for us. Are there any other songs/albums by them or other bands that you'd like to recommend to our readers? Perhaps people can have a jumping point to try to listen for colours in music taking cues from some of your descriptions. You can recommend as many or as little as you feel is a good starting point:
I recently finished a synesthesia piece of "Videotape" which feels similar to the two other Radiohead songs we talked about...themes of coming to the end of something, perhaps a long, meaningful relationship, and just beginning to grieve the loss. The texture I used in my painting recreates the track's percussion expanding and collapsing on itself, but underneath that synesthetic layer, hidden in the colour-play of light and dark, is lot of emotion. I titled the piece "the most perfect day I've ever seen" since that lyric from the song always hits me hard. It's as if I'm approaching the end of my life, (or even more painful, the end of a relationship) and I've got my eyes closed, replaying in my mind's eye this memory of profound contentment and beauty, but it's accompanied by pangs of grief because the very occurrence of this most blissful moment means never again in this life will I experience a day so perfect.
I am strongly drawn to music containing sounds that I've never heard before, or novel ways of structuring sound or chord progressions. Alt-J is immensely creative in these areas. My "This Is All Yours" collection is a handful of synesthetic pieces inspired by their second album of the same name, but I'm still trying to get more of their rich, striking imagery from my mind on to the canvas. I also love how their lyrics contain these strange references that serve as unique, poetic ways to translate obscure emotion.
I really love Bon Iver's latest album 22, A Million, where Justin Vernon kind of re-invented his sound, and what comes through is this raw honesty referencing feelings of anxiety and the re-evaluation of his faith. He helps me paint angst surrounded by resplendence.
I also find myself doing a lot of Animal Collective pieces. Their music is pretty much just fun, kalidoscopic, trippy, colour shows :)
On another note, I can’t believe I am only now hearing of Fujimura!? He sounds so full of insight. Can you offer our readers any other authors, speakers or written works that have influenced you? Perhaps along with easily digestible music listening, it may be worthwhile for them to contemplate some other heavy, and deeper ideas in their own time, especially since we can’t cover it all here.
Mako is my hero, and is invaluable to anyone looking for thoughtful insights into art, faith, culture, suffering, redemption, or anything else of value. He's willing to walk into the uncomfortable places in order to find healing and beauty hidden in the dark. His art contains the kindness and sensitivity he has towards the suffering. His commencement speeches are profoundly inspiring. His most recent book, Silence and Beauty, was so helpful in my spiritual journey, resonating the themes of kinstukuroi and resurrection I was studying. He digs deep into really difficult aspects of faith that aren't typically addressed in Christian churches, for example: the silence of God as followers of God face severe suffering, or how shameful, contemptible, Judas-types could play equally invaluable roles as heroic martyrs, and how creative types can give a voice to these subjects.
“To live is Death” is such a beautiful piece that will be featured in the newest Maker's Magazine issue, and there is so much wisdom in that paradoxical title. Can you share a little bit about what gets you through the dark parts of living with our readers to encourage them in their own trek through the dark parts; during the parts where the seed of your life must first die before it grows?
The dark parts... I honestly don't know what gets me through the dark parts. I feel unqualified to offer much to those in the dark, since I've been stuck there for so long and I've lost almost all hope. When one is there, in the darkest dark, feeling alien and isolated and stripped of hope, words of encouragement or advice can come off as shallow and insensitive. I think what is most needed is empathy in its purest form, a simple willingness to be with the hurting, to just sit in the ashes in silence together. Perhaps this is what gets me through, to know that I have the capacity and responsibility to offer that to others because I have been there. Whether through my art or music or quite literally, I can sit with the hurting and offer silent compassion. If your heart is broken then mine is, too. It is quite easy to feel alone in our pain, but we are not. If we can muster up the courage to share what we struggle with, we will find that we are not alone, and perhaps knowing this is the best encouragement. Reaching out in our pain, we can become burden-lifters to others; perhaps this is a first step towards healing. (But what do I know? I'm still trying to navigate in the dark.)
It’s refreshing to see spiritually mature thinking in this piece. I see this in the portion where you suggest that “If we are living, we will experience all manners of death”, and that these deaths and pain are quite necessary to bring forward our most “beautiful and fully-alive self.” Can you give us insight into where you’ve learned this kind of insight, and how it affects the way that you live and do art?
My understanding of restoration, redemption, and resurrection come from two main sources. I was first exposed to the concept of Kintsukuroi a few years ago. I'd come to the point where I didn't want to live anymore, and admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital. A psychiatrist there had hanging on his wall picture of a clay bowl with beautiful streaks of gold. Text underneath the bowl described the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi, in which a broken piece of pottery is not discarded, but carefully mended with gold, and so then is transformed into something more beautiful only because it had been broken. It was always my nature to hide my flaws, thinking any visible imperfection would render me unloveable, so the concept that my failures and brokenness could be treated with compassion and tenderness, and be instrumental in my redemption and beautification was quite powerful. It liberated me from upholding this exhausting false identity of perfection that contributed to my profound brokenness. I've experienced this sort of restoration in this life, whereas redemption after death comes from a Christian belief in resurrection.
The rock-solid faith I grew up with was pulverized over that last few years. Feelings of abandonment and unanswered questions reduced my relationship with God to next to nothing. But even here was a hidden story of resurrection in the death of my faith; any half-truths I'd learned from poor theology or a man-made church culture were revealed as worthless and destructive, and I had to rediscover who God truly is on my own and rebuild my faith from dust. Wrestling in theodicy, Buddhism, and existentialism [it was during this time that I painted the pieces in my TIME/SPACE collection], I kept landing on the sufferings of Christ, whose death and resurrection is the ultimate illustration that even when we feel forsaken by God, and questions go unanswered, pain is not without purpose, and will result in restoration, despite any of our unbelief in that. These two concepts, kinstukuroi and Christ's resurrection, remind me that all the death and brokenness in life will produce life and restoration, if not in this life, then in the next. This, in turn, tells me that I am capable of producing and sharing radiance even when I am in the midst of hopelessness and despair.
The creative world needs this kind of insight, Christina. Thank you so much for letting us see what many could not, or would not show. Please know that some of the tears you’ve wept have filled my cup in listening to you, and I’m certain they have filled other cups too. It’s because of artists like you that Makers Movement has this kind of depth and breadth.
Pleasure is truly mine. Grateful.