From the feeling of playing grandma’s guitar to the visual translation of eating Play-Doh, Tore Terrasi’s fine arts students have created abstract works, transforming sensations into art based on shapes, colors and things completely new.
The art and art history associate professor has assigned his “Synaesthesic Symbols” project to his students for several years, where they picked an act involving any sense except sight and reimagined what they were experiencing into a piece of abstract art.
Terrasi took inspiration for this project from a condition called synesthesia.
Synesthesia is a perceptual condition where people associate two unrelated features, like a smell, song or word with something like a color, texture, taste or even a personality, said Steffie Tomson, neuroscientist and former synesthesia researcher.
There are many types of synesthesia, involving the connection of multiple combinations of senses early on in development.
Terrasi said he likes the idea of senses crossing and “talking” with each other, and when it comes to synesthesia, he’s interested in being able to understand something through unconventional means.
Terrasi is not synesthetic, but he said he has tried to tap into it little by little, and this is what he wants his students to try to do through the project.
“The majority of the students think it’s a little out there, a little wacky,” Terrasi said. “Translating a sound into an image, or smell into a sound, some students really struggle with that. But that’s why we’re here in this major. You brand yourself as a creative thinker. Well, this is one way to tap into that.”
Synesthesia has also had an influence on the careers of big musicians like Pharrell Williams, Lorde and Billie Eilish.
In an interview with iHeartRadio, Eilish said, “I think visually first with everything I do, and also I have synesthesia, so everything that I make I’m already thinking of what color it is, and what texture it is, and what day of the week it is, and what number it is, and what shape.”
The most common type of synesthesia is called grapheme-color synesthesia, where the person associates letters, numbers and words with different colors, according to a 2014 Multisensory Research scientific article. This is the type of synesthesia that Tomson has.
When Tomson was in second grade, she was trying to remember how to spell the word “cat,” looking for which letter goes on the end. She already knew the letters C and A, and, thinking out loud, she said: “Well, the next letter is yellow. So it must be a T.”
At the time, her classmates didn’t understand, she said. They giggled at her and looked confused.
“That was the moment when I realized, ‘Well, this is different,’” Tomson said. “And I really clammed up about it.”
However, even those without synesthesia can adapt a similar way of thinking.
For music education sophomore Becky Garcia and her studio classmates, the struggle of memorizing musical tones can be aided by assigning each tone a color.
“I think of how the color makes me feel when I look at it. Like yellow is bright, so I think of a brighter-toned color with that,” Garcia said. “Whereas, like the purple or the blue is kind of a calmer, cooler tone, and I think of the deeper sounds with that.”
Thinking like a synesthete might not be for everyone, but for several of Garcia’s classmates, the effort has shown results.
“Sometimes I get more inspired when I think about colors, but sometimes it bogs me down,” Garcia said. “But that’s for me personally. Like I said, some of the people in my studio, that’s their thing. They love associating different colors with tone colors, and it’s like a puzzle piece for them.”
Garcia said this train of thought has helped several people in her studio really lock on to their songs.
“I think it could be a great application for across different majors,” Garcia said. “If you figure out what works for you, then it can really help if you can connect to that.”