The Art of Carol Steen

The first painting in which Carol Steen tried to show what a synesthetic vision looked like to her — something she had never been able to express in words — this represents part of a vision she had seen during acupuncture. “Watching a vision is like watching a movie,” Steen says. ‘You can’t recreate all you see . . . but you can capture the essential parts, the colors, the background on which you see the moving, shaped colors, (the background moves too), the sense of movement, and the direction in which the colored shapes are moving.”



Carol Steen’s Evolving Synesthetic Worldscape


While Carol Steen’s exquisite art is pleasing to the eye, providing much to enjoy and admire, we cannot fully understand it without knowing that Steen has always experienced the world through her synesthesia. Although some of her art may look abstract to us, to the artist it could not be more real.


Synesthesia can be defined as a neuropsychological trait in which the stimulation of one sense causes the automatic experience of another sense.  The most well-known example is aural/visual, where an individual “hears” colors or “sees” sounds. But it can manifest in any of the other senses, and in many different ways.

Today Steen realizes that early on, even before she knew about synesthesia, it informed everything she did. She is one of the most articulate artists I have ever encountered, often feeling the need to explain what she has created and why. For her, every sound, smell, and bodily sensation triggers shapes and colors that she has incorporated into her painting and sculpture — sometimes consciously, and sometimes not. Indeed, she has succeeded in identifying the triggers and the results in numerous articles and presentations.



Clouds Rise Up, 2004-5, is an example of an earlier work in which the trigger was the sound of a musician playing a shakuhachi flute. Steen wrote: “This is exactly what I saw as I listened to him play his flute. Each note he played had two sounds and two colors: red and orange, which is why the two colors you see move together as one shape on the slightly metallic green surface.” To me, the effect came close to calligraphy, which was quite fascinating, as the flute had a Japanese origin.


“Clouds Rise Up” 2004-5




Although most of Steen’s early work referred to specific music, incidents, or feelings, her recent pieces combine numerous synesthetic photisms and vocabulary from her life experiences.

In the digital work Wandering through My Landscape—one of the artist’s newest creations— we see zigzags, commas, layering, brilliant colors, and, above all, the movement that characterizes all her art. I would call it a synesthetic worldscape.


“Wandering through My Landscape” 2022




Wandering through My Alphabet, 2022, is another recent digital work in which Steen combines previous themes or vocabulary. Here she uses colors of her unique alphabet (the letter A, for her, is pink, for example). But her letters are not literal; instead, she combines alphabetic colors with textures.  She has said, “sometimes the textures I see are solid; sometimes they are speckled and undulate like miniscule corduroy tufts, like grass in the breeze. Waving, swirling . . .”  One can almost call this work an “alphabetscape.”


“Wandering through my Alphabet,” 2022




Another recent work explores her world of sounds, but in a more generalized way.  Titled Golden Sounds, it uses repeated zigzagging motifs, parallel comma shapes, and a sense of deep space. Although I myself am not a synesthete, this definitely looks to me like music sounds.


“Golden Sounds,” 2022




Steen has used gold as a motif in some earlier paintings: for example, Runs Off in Front: Gold (below) which she painted in 2003. Steen, who is an expert metalsmith in silver and gold, wrote to me:  “I love working gold. Gold is the best metal ever. It is noble, forgiving, malleable, ductile, easy to work, easy to polish, never tarnishes. It is agreeable in all the ways one can work it. When I use gold in a painting it references all the good things gold is to work with.  It is a color that speaks of love.”


“Runs off in Gold,” 2003




Schumann Quintet is one of the few recent works that has a direct reference to specific music. She listened repeatedly to Martha Argerich’s recording, seeing the pianist in the center in pink, and the other musicians colorfully imploding into her.


“Schumann Quintet,” 2022.




As we can see, in her latest work Steen has used vocabulary from decades of synesthetic photisms she incorporated into specific paintings and sculptures. The artist’s use of computer technology has newly enabled her to capture the rapidly moving shapes and intense colors she has always seen, but not quite been able to share, thereby creating ever-changing new mindscapes. She has written, “I make my images with my hands, directly touching my iPad when I use Photoshop on it, so I call these pieces handmade digital works. They are just as handmade as my oil paintings where I never paint using brushes.”


Wandering 7898.


Steen’s most recent work is part of her new “Wanderings” series, a quest to present all the overlapping moving colors and shapes comprising her entire world of visions. “Choosing to watch my visions is about the only control I have over them,” Steen says. “Sometimes I can ignore them . . . [and] they disappear if I’m in danger, running across the street because a car is coming fast towards me. Then I have no time for the orange squealing brakes or the black and white static pattern of tires bouncing in and out of potholes. I just run.”

It has become increasingly apparent to me, during my investigations of synesthetic artists and composers of music, that innovative methods frequently characterize their work. Carol Steen’s embrace of computer technology and new programs has enabled her to reveal to us the synesthetic scenery/mindscapes that only she sees. And our world becomes richer because of it.


Greta Berman received a B.A. from Antioch College, an M.A. from the University of Stockholm, and a Ph.D. from Columbia. She has been Professor of Art History at Juilliard since 1978. In addition to writing a monthly column, “Focus on Art,” for the Juilliard Journal, she co-curated and co-edited Synesthesia: Art and the Mind.  She has published numerous articles, as well as lectured on synesthesia and other subjects.  

Carol Steen is an artist, writer, curator, and synesthete. She received her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art.  Her work can be found in many public collections including the Library of Congress, the University of Michigan, the McLaughlin Gallery in Canada, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. She has had more than twenty solo exhibitions and been in over eighty museum and gallery group shows. Steen has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others.  She has participated in numerous television and online documentaries worldwide, including 60 Minutes, BBC, and NPR, and her work is included in over forty books and articles. Numerous newspapers and magazines such as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the New York Times have written about her. Steen is frequently invited to speak about her work at universities and museums around the world and has presented at the University of Cambridge, UK; Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City; the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY; and at the Royal Institution in London, among many others. Her research papers have been published by M.I.T., Brill, and Oxford University Press. Steen is the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, Inc. a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1995 to provide information to synesthetes and to further research the area of synesthesia.


  1. What a beautiful, enlightening piece. Thanks so much, Greta and Carol, for sharing your understanding of synesthesia and the creativity it generates. The paintings hum and sing.

  2. When I saw these, I felt as if I were floating through space, experiencing the delight and wonder of the universe. I don’t think any other paintings have given me that feeling.

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