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Spotlight on Science: Carol Steen

This month’s Spotlight on Science looks at the intersection of synesthesia and art. Carol Steen discusses her own synesthesia and her journey to understand it, how synesthesia has impacted her art, and the increase in synesthesia awareness and research. Her article, “Visions Shared: A Firsthand Look into Synesthesia and Art” (Leonardo, June 2001) was one of the earliest first-hand accounts of synesthesia and its role in art, and her story helped inspire Wendy Mass's award-winning novel, A Mango-Shaped Space. Steen has since co-written a chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, and continues to create art from her synesthetic visions.  Read the article for free on our SOS page.

You write that you first learned about synesthesia in 1993 when Richard E. Cytowic was in the process of bringing it back into mainstream science. Your article was published seven years later, in 2001. In 2003, author Wendy Mass wrote a young adult novel about an artistic and synesthetic girl named Mia, called A Mango-Shaped Space. Ten years later, Oxford University Press published the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, and just last year, your article was cited in an extensive paper titled "Color Synesthesia: Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness," published in the journal Current Opinion in Neurology. How has the rise in awareness of synesthesia, and the accompanying increase in research about it, impacted you? Has it affected your art, or your artistic process, at all?

In 1993, we didn't have computers. Well, a few people did, but for most of us computers didn't exist. More importantly, even if you had a computer, you were still isolated. Early in 1995 I would make long trips by subway to the one branch of my college where they had a computer lab. In a very small dark room on the top floor of an old NYC building were about 20 small screened computers. I could use them if a class was not being held, or if, with permission and providing I was very quiet, there was an available seat. I remember one day I sat in this room and learned I could ask a search engine for information about synesthesia. I did and waited for the answer. It gave me 35 “hits”—seventeen of those were duplicates. 

Back then it was so hard to get any information about synesthesia: who could one ask? How could one even find out the names of those who were the synesthesia experts? It would take years for search engines to become really helpful. As for finding other artists, well, I knew I could not be the only artist with synesthesia, but it took me years to find others. My dream question was: Who else had synesthesia? All I knew back then, thanks to Cytowic, was that David Hockney was a synesthete. And I knew about the Kluver Form Constants. It was a beginning. 

Today, thanks to major advances to the internet in terms of speed, and to search engines in terms of information, we can share ideas faster than a sentence can be said out loud. How has the increase in research impacted me? Happily, I am no longer alone with a lifetime of unknowable questions such as: are there reasons why I like what I do, why do I create like I do. Today, I understand how my synesthetic triggers impact my work processes. And I have media choices: I can use both old school tools and techniques, and new school digital technology. When I see the works of other artists who have synesthesia, and see how they use their joined senses in their works, I know I am no longer alone. I know that others really do see what I see.

How has it affected my art or artistic process?  I used to worry when I broke some long-held, inviolate rule in art. Now, I confidently break all the rules I need to break in order to create my work. I write about the broken rules in great detail in the OUP chapter, Synesthesia and the Artistic Process.

In the article, you frequently mention acupuncture. Did you begin going to acupuncture sessions when you realized that one of your synesthetic triggers was touch? Or did you use acupuncture before you fully understood your synesthesia?

I was very ill when I started acupuncture treatments in 1981. Western medicine could not figure out why I was so sick; my symptoms didn't match any known illnesses. Eastern medicine immediately identified the problem and provided help. I had been poisoned by toxic chemicals spewed into a common building air shaft over many years by a next door neighbor who manufactured painted display cabinets. In fact, all of us in our building, and those in the buildings that bordered the air shaft, were very sick—even the pet cats were going bald.

I went for acupuncture treatments on a weekly basis. It was during the first 6 months of treatments that I gave myself permission to believe I saw moving colored shapes from touch. Repeatedly, I would watch a beautiful movie of appearing and disappearing colored shapes as long as the needles were in place. Eventually, and hesitantly, I told my acupuncturist what I was seeing. She told me something amazing. She said the acupuncture points were first discovered by their colors. I still go for acupuncture treatments, I still see the moving colors.

Wendy Mass’s inscription in Steen’s copy of A Mango-Shaped Space.

Since the article’s publication, have you heard from or encountered more synesthetic artists? Have you noticed any patterns in synesthetic art?

This is a great question. There are a lot of synesthetic artists. I don't know if there are any 'patterns' in synesthetic art, but there are some commonalities. To really answer this question, please see my chapter.

Excerpted from Synesthesia and the Artistic Process, published in the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia:

“In many paintings by synesthetes, colors do not go all the way to the edges, leaving ‘holes,’ and frequently their creators have made them in a furore of energy. They often use unexpected colors or color combinations. Some synesthetes do not see all the colors in their visions and so may have a restricted palette. Steen, for example, never uses violet because she rarely sees it in a photism, and finds working with it to be unfamiliar. The keen representation of movement is also a recurring theme. Hence, layers of colored shapes painted one on top of the others, or the use of morphing and permutation to suggest movement and change in location of shapes, also serve as synesthetic evidence. One quickly seen shape is often replaced by another shape or color, and synesthetic painters commonly use layering, though they are aware that painting on top of something will partially obscure whatever colors or images were put down originally” (Steen and Berman, 689).

One of the ongoing research projects on synesthesia at the University of Sussex is synesthesia over lifespan. Have you noticed any changes in your synesthesia throughout your life? If so, has that impacted your art?

I am part of that study. I am so glad they are doing it.

My synesthetic abilities have changed over my lifetime. I think I have more forms now than when I was 7 years old. Back then, I would wonder why most, but not all, of my letters and numbers were colored. Now, 99% of them are well matched. (Today, I have punctuation in color too.) I have colored sounds, smells, touch, and pain. Did I have all those forms when I was 7? Probably. But today, I have even more forms than that. I don't know if it is because I know about synesthesia and know what to pay attention to, or if there are other reasons why I have additional forms, why the current ones I have are more memorable, and stronger, than when I was 7 years old. 

Re: my art. As I learned more about synesthesia I noticed I had used it to create my art. At first, not knowing about Kluver's form constants, I had used my perceptions unconsciously, unaware of commonalities. Now I use them consciously, intentionally. My synesthetic and art awarenesses have changed over my lifetime. Knowledge is freedom.

That said, in 2013 I suddenly got a new form, one I never had before. Some call it “hypnagogic” visions. I think that these new hypnagogic visions share some commonalities with synesthesia.

Carol Steen’s example of a hypnagogic vision.

Have there ever been times when your synesthesia becomes overwhelming or frightening? How do you handle those experiences?

Frightening? Yes. Twice. 

The first time was when I was 7 and told my best friend that the letter “a” was the prettiest pink I had ever seen. She said I was weird and we stopped being friends. I decided that silence was safer and didn't mention my colored letters to anyone until I was 20.

The second time came 2-1/2 years ago.  I suddenly developed this ability to see hypnagogic visions. I was worried, I didn't know what they were. But I was also no longer 7 years old, knowing nothing, knowing no one. Now I knew people. I contacted 4 scientists I knew. One said, there is a name for what you're seeing. Another said, there was something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome: people who are going blind sometimes see these things. That information sent me to the eye doctor who said I was not losing my vision, but good that I came in—my prescription for glasses needed to be changed. Another said, hypnagogic visions were considered to be hallucinations and were mentioned in the DSM. The last scientist said, "Oh, I see those too. Lots of people do." What a relief. I now had a name, and Google, and books, and started to create from the beautiful visions I saw.

For more insights from Carol Steen on synesthesia and art, check out her article “Visions Shared: A Firsthand Look into Synesthesia and Art” for free.

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