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What the world looks like to an artist with synesthesia

Curse my perfectly working senses!

They look like acrylic record albums. Or maybe a rainbow dissected into Skittles-like strata. But these acrylic paintings don’t depict things. They depict sensations. More specifically, how Lucy Engelman, a synesthete, sees years, decades, and centuries in her head. That makes them biological visualizations of time itself.

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Synesthesia is a neurological condition that essentially crosses a brain’s perceptual inputs and outputs, allowing some people to taste colors or see smells. “With my synesthesia, I see all single-digit numbers in color, and all larger-digit numbers are a combination of those original colors,” explains Engelman. “Numbers that correspond to the way we conceptualize time, then take on these forms that you see in the work.”

50s-80s, 2018. [Image: Daniel Mullen]
The paintings themselves, spotted by FlowingData, are produced alongside the painter Daniel Mullen (Engelman is a video artist).

“We actually met when Daniel was showing his work in New York, and I was stunned at how his visual language was the closest thing I had ever seen to being a material demonstration of my synesthesia,” says Engelman. “Basically, I’d never seen it outside my own brain before. Then we fell in love, got married, and started collaborating on the work.”

46-74, 2018. [Image: Daniel Mullen]

To produce each piece, first Engelman comes up with the vision–which includes the years, the colors, the angles, and the perspective at play. For her, a century might look like a linear shift from green, to blue, to white in the middle, to yellow. Or a 28-year span between years 1946 and ’74 will feature an orange to pink shift, with a sharp corner that almost protrudes out of the painting right at your eye. Meanwhile, Mullen is the one who puts paint to canvas.

What’s so striking about the work is, generally, when most of us think “synesthesia,” we picture something along the lines of a painting from Kandinsky (the documented synesthete who birthed abstract art): a mess of color, a glorious celebration of sensual chaos.

Engelman and Mullen give us a different view–one that demonstrates a sure and beautiful logic going on inside our heads, rather than randomized noise. But even still, the duo considers the work very much in the realm of abstraction rather than representation. “Because the colors are unusual, and the combination of colors are ones that an artist might not choose for aesthetic reasons, we both enjoy the unexpected effects,” says Engelman.

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And we do, too.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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