Making sense of synaesthesia through the arts

Artist and synaesthete Jane Mackay. Picture: Rachel Davies

When Jane Mackay hears some words, she also sees them as colours. The artist tells Marjorie Brennan about the wonders of being able to paint music.

Jane Mackay is talking about one of her very first memories. “I must have been about two and a half and I remember the colour of a wood pigeon’s call in my grandparent’s garden. It was a sort of mauvy-purple.”

Mackay has synaesthesia, and her particular form means she is able to see words and hear sounds as colours.

The former GP turned artist specialises in painting music.

There is evidence that synaesthesia can enhance memory, so it is perhaps not surprising that Mackay, 70, can also clearly remember as a child arguing with her sister about what colour the days of the week were. It wasn’t until many years later that she realised not everyone else saw the world in the same way.

“My sister, who is two years younger, is a synaesthete as well; her colours for the days of the week were different to mine and I thought she was wrong. I had all sorts of those experiences but I always thought they were completely normal. I could illustrate that by asking you when you remember first seeing in colour and you probably can’t answer that, because that is your normal. That is how synaesthesia was for me.” Mackay was practising as a GP in London when she realised she was a synaesthete.

“I visited a psychiatrist who had a collection of paintings by a West Indian man who was a synaesthete. I talked to this psychiatrist about my interest in painting music, particularly Benjamin Britten. He said, ‘Oh, you must be a synaesthete’. I had never even heard the word. When I started to look into it, a whole lot of things started to make a lot of sense.”

Mackay also experiences grapheme colour synaesthesia, which means words, numbers and letters manifest in colours.

“There are masses of different types of synaesthesia. I have a friend, who, when people talk to her, sees the words in a kind of ticker tape going across her visual field.”

Mackay has collaborated with Irish violinist Siobhán Doyle of the Lir Quartet, on the Aesynth Festival, a four-day event which celebrates the phenomenon of synaesthesia through music, art, talks and film. For Mackay, the process has been a rewarding and joyful one.

I absolutely love exhibiting in venues where the music I have painted is played live. That is something that clicked with Siobhán and me from the beginning.

Mackay has done a series of paintings based on Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D major and Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, which will be played in the rooms in which Mackay’s work is exhibited.

“Britten’s quartet is an incredibly poignant piece of music, it is absolutely wonderful. Britten was very ill when he was writing it and never heard the first performance, he died three weeks before it was performed. It is almost his farewell to life, really.”

In terms of Mackay’s process, she begins by listening to whatever piece she plans to paint intently, with no distractions.

“I work from a CD. I put on the music, lie on the floor with my eyes shut, then gather images. I get tons of images and then I have to sort out which to paint. The next stage is getting a full score of the music and going through it, marking into it potential paintings at certain points.

"Sometimes it will be a stretch of a few bars, other times, just one note will stand out and the whole painting can be just one note. Having arrived at that, you then have to think of the whole show, the number of rooms in the gallery, the size, the kind of venue, what is going to fit. There are a lot of considerations. Then I get painting.”

While she works mainly with classical music, Mackay says she is open to painting in all genres.

“Sometimes I’ve been commissioned to paint pop music, which isn’t my great love but it certainly gives images. The things that create the most striking images are contrasts, for example, if you have a passage which is trundling along in D major and suddenly it goes into B minor, you will get a real change in colour.

“That can be a very good starting point for a painting, or a rhythmic change or something unusual the cello is doing underneath in a passage. Sometimes I will paint exactly what I see in my mind’s eye and sometimes I will play with the image, just like all artists.”

Mackay says that while being a synaesthete is mostly positive, there are some downsides.

“It can be very confusing if colours don’t match up with somebody’s name, for example. The colour tends to be stronger than the name. When I was in general practice, there was a patient whose surname was a very bright red, a cadmium red, so I remembered her as having red hair. But when I called her in from the waiting room, she had black hair. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It completely disrupted the consultation, because the association and memory was so strong.”

Mackay, 70, worked as a GP for 20 years in London and says she has never regretted giving up medicine to become a full-time artist.

“I am so intrigued by and engrossed in what I’m doing that there isn’t time for regret. I threw my stethoscope into the Thames on Millennium morning.

“I engraved it with my dates as a doctor and the words ‘artist 1/1/00’ and my friends and I drank lots of champagne as I threw it off Lambeth Bridge into the Thames, where I hope it still is.

“It was a rite of passage, turning the big great page of life.”

Aesynth Festival, Feb 7-10, In-spire Galerie, Dublin.

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