Carol Steen’s Evolving Synesthetic Worldscape
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.”
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.