Senses Collide at McMaster Museum of Art

By RoseAnne Prevec, September 15, 2008

    Artwork by synesthete Carol Steen will be on display at the McMaster Museum of Art as part of the Synesthesia: Art and the Mind exhibition. Photo by RoseAnne Prevec.
When American artist Carol Steen begins a painting, she does not set up her canvas in front of a still life or landscape. She turns on her CD player and paints the music.

Steen is a hearer of colours -- a synesthete -- one of the rare few people gifted with a brain phenomenon in which there is an involuntary joining of senses. A synesthete may, for example, taste shapes, smell colours, or perceive each letter of the alphabet in a different and highly specific colour.

The McMaster Museum of Art in collaboration with the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour presents Synesthesia: Art and the Mind, an exhibition featuring the art of known synesthetes David Hockney, Joan Mitchell, Marcia Smilack and Carol Steen, and works by artists thought to be synesthetic, including Charles Burchfield, Tom Thomson, Wassily Kandinsky and Vincent van Gogh.

In recent years, there have been a number of exhibitions featuring "visual music" and even sound-art, in which artists have attempted to replicate synesthesia using computers. McMaster's exhibition is the first time works of known synesthetic artists will be shown in context and the first exhibition to explore synesthesia using the tools of noted scientists Heinrich Kluver and Georg Anschutz, who studied synesthesia extensively during the 20th century.

"Many factors influence a viewer's reaction to a piece of art," says professor Daphne Maurer, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour and coordinator of the exhibition. "This exhibition introduces one that has been long neglected: cross-modal influences on the work of synesthetic artists and their impact on non-synesthetic viewers."

This exhibition was co-curated by Carol Steen, artist, New York City, and Greta Berman, professor of art history, The Juilliard School, New York City. A catalogue is available, including essays by Berman, Maurer and Steen as well as Patricia Albers and Nancy Weekly.

Synesthesia: Art and the Mind runs from Sept. 18 until Nov. 15. A public reception will be held on Sept. 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. as part of the 7th Annual Meeting of the American Synesthesia Association. Museum docents will also be offering a free public tour of the exhibition as part of Hamilton's Lifelong Learning Week on Friday, Sept. 19 at 12:30 p.m.