Synesthesia is romanticised as a condition exclusive to only the most talented, but one painter explains how over-stimulation can be isolating as well as inspiring
It’s a grey, wind-blown November day. A slew of buses are crawling through heavy traffic, a streaked cloudline washing low over the sky. But imagine that flat, unfluctuating scene registering as something different. Like a long, acid-speckled burn of violet, orange, pink and green?
That’s how 21-year old Northern Irish abstract artist Jack Coulter relays the scene to me as he stares from his skylight window, Franz Liszt playing softly on the stereo in the background, the tremble and touch of the piano keys fuelling an entire spectrum of colour responses. Jack has synesthesia, a neuro-sensory misalignment in which the stimulation of one sense causes the automatic and involuntary stimulation of another.
Thought to affect around 4 per cent of the UK population, it’s a condition heavily romanticised within popular culture said to affect Dev Hynes, Kanye West and David Hockney. But its adverse effects on the human psyche are rarely talked about. Just what does it feel like to exist in an abstracted world of oncoming sensory traffic 24 hours a day?
“I used to think I was dreaming,” says Coulter. “Even something like staring at the sky was a fluorescent experience.” There are many forms of the condition, and Jack possesses an idiosyncratic form known as chromesthesia, or, sound-to-colour synesthesia, characterised by a vivid, iridescent colour response to sound, causing the individual to ‘hear’ colour.
“I was afraid to speak up. I thought that many would think I had a problem or something. I felt isolated enough – I didn’t want that kind of attention”
Born in Belfast in 1994, he spent much of his childhood grappling with the condition, little known for its powerful emotional triggers. His route through it finding an expression in abstract art: in sprawling canvases of half-eroded neons, bright, brittle stabs of darkness and long, smooth washes that reveal painstaking layers of technique and energy that verge on fanatical.
And as I look over his scores of neon outpourings, it becomes clear that existing with the condition has been a battle hard fought. I ask him to step back to his childhood and recall what it was like trying to communicate his condition with the adults and authority figures in his life.
“I was afraid to speak up. I thought that many would think I had a problem or something. I felt isolated enough – I didn’t want that kind of attention,” he recalls. “I rarely spoke as a child. I was painfully shy. I was so quiet that trying to explain a sensory, cognitive neurological phenomenon seemed like a terrifying prospect.”
Coulter’s first indication that he saw things differently came during moments of calm and silence, when he realised the strobing ultraviolet flashes that ripped through his vision – similar to those cast by a blacklight – were triggered by hearing his own heartbeat. And these cognitive colour triggers continued even when he slept, causing him to wake repeatedly as he recounts a repetitive dream that began during childhood, where free-floating colour formations would pulse and circle across a dark void of dreamspace. It was only during later years that he learned how these abstractions were caused by the sound of rain against his window.
And while many of these distortions found their way on to his canvases during his teens, there’s a stark sense that his work began as an attempt to offer release from the distress and sensory overload of life inside a spinning kaleidoscope.
“One girl told me that my art saved her from committing suicide,” says Coulter. “She said that coming across my work changed her mind. It made me cry. I couldn’t believe that something I had created in my garage had the ability to save someone’s life. To this day, I still think if I hadn’t created that painting, she wouldn’t be alive today. A girl also got my one of my paintings tattooed on her neck. That was very surreal, to be honest. I asked her if she really wanted it permanently on her body, she insisted.”
As well as his dedicated fans, Jack’s work has attracted the attention of several institutions known for their impeccable style. He produced the artwork for Rough Trade-signed musician SOAK, skipping school to produce the cover and inlay art for her album Before We Forgot How to Dream, which was nominated for this year’s Mercury Music Prize He also produced a limited edition print for the winners of this year’s GQ Men of the Year Awards.
“It’s a strange feeling knowing that so many celebrities own my artwork,” he muses. “I hadn’t even finished college when it was all happening.” And it must feel strange, with megastars like Samuel L Jackson and Keith Richards owning the artwork he’s created by slamming and scraping his canvases in bold shocks of colour from his chaotic little garage in Belfast.
And at a time when both artist and consumer remain enamoured by the perception of the artist as an entity, it feels his work is a little out-of-step with the art world’s current climate. Not some ego-fuelled, half-academic attempt to comment on society at large, but as a sensual process to explore, channel and soothe a condition characterised by extreme emotional reactions to the everyday, as well a mechanism for coping with a world blasted in neon and shimmering like the first heavy wave of a mescaline trip.
And there’s no doubt this raw transference of emotion onto his canvases is precisely why his work resonates so clearly with tens of thousands of people out there. Others may not see life in chromacolour, nor register the layered complexity of his techniques. But they are able to feel very well the emotional release behind it, incorporating their own internal vocabulary of confusion, pain and isolation behind his frantic stabs and bolts of colour.
If an individual tells me that my artwork has affected their life in any shape or form, that means the most,” says Coulter. “If they feel a personal relation towards my artwork, that is very gratifying.”
As we talk more, I ask him a little about his process. He says he’s barely ever used a paintbrush, opting instead for sticks, broken glass, hands and sand to apply his colours. “I use the cheapest paint I can find,” he tells me. “I buy all of my paint second-hand from charity stores. I find it more raw, knowing that someone else has opened it before me.”
“Many would find it daunting to have an empty canvas in front of them. I find it natural, like breathing. Of course, my synesthesia is one of the most prominent forces with regards to creating art. The feelings are almost sexual, it overwhelms my entire body at times.”
And although his process has not changed significantly over the years, he has been able to channel his condition more effectively, delving into painful states of memory, isolation and bereavement, which trigger bright, painful pinwheels and scatterings of colour for many synesthetes, as well as heightened emotional responses as vivid and abstract as the colours of his canvases.
“I’m a very sensitive, empathetic person,” he says. “I feel too much. In my mind, I recall my memories almost like Super-8 film. There are segments of colour that distort each visual. My development has been more of a psychological venture. I feel more in touch now than when I was younger. I can delve into my past experiences more frequently. The level of emotion that art gives me is like nothing else. Art plays with my feelings. It can make me cry, it can make me ecstatic. And with synesthesia, there is no in-between.”