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‘The Color of Sound’ to Explore Synesthesia
Thursday, January 12, 2023


The color of sound.

The phrase sounds funny, almost incongruous. But apparently, some artists perceive sound as a color or shape as one sense stimulates another sense in them.

The Sun Valley Museum of Art explores that phenomenon, which is called synesthesia, in its new group exhibition “The Color of Sound.”

The exhibition kicks off with an opening celebration from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13. And Brad Johnson, one of the participating artists, will talk about his immersive installation that envelops visitors in sound and light at 6 p.m.

The exhibition include paintings, drawings, sculptures, film projects and immersive installations by synesthetic artists and artists who are not synesthetes but seek to create such experiences for viewers.

It will run through March 18.

Synesthesia is a neurological condition experienced by between 3 percent and 5 percent of the population. It has been considered a powerful driver of creativity for some artists throughout history.

It takes several forms: One person might perceive letters or numbers as colors, while another associates a word with a scent or taste. Someone might feel the geometric shape of food, be it round, square or sharp, every time they bite into food. Perception of sound as color or shape has been particularly powerful for artists who find visual inspiration while listening to music.

They cannot turn their interconnected senses on or off. It just happens

Some of the artworks in the SVMoA’s exhibition were made over a period of a hundred years.

 “It offers viewers an exciting opportunity to learn more about the phenomenon of synesthesia while also exploring the evolution in the ways that artists have translated the experience of music into visual artform, from early modernist landscape paintings to contemporary installation work,” said Courtney Gilbert, who curated the exhibition. “I’m delighted that the exhibition includes everything from historic work by 20th century artistic pioneers like Vance Kirkland and Mary Ellen Bute to Brad Johnson’s commissioned project.”

  • Brad Johnson’s immersive installation titled “Lost in Deep Time” blends composer Andy Akiho’s 2017 piano quintet “Prospects of a Misplaced Year” with digital environments derived from photographs and scans Johnson made in different Pacific Northwest landscapes. They range from Idaho’s Black Magic Canyon north of Shoshone to the glaciers of Washington’s Mount Adams.
  • Mary Ellen Bute’s films attempt to translate the aural experience of musical compositions into visual animations. The pioneering animator created “Rhythm in Light” in 1934 and “Color Rhapsodie” in 1948, filming objects like paper models, eggbeaters and jewelry to create abstract patterns to a later film made using drawn animation cels in colors, overlapping layers of fireworks and floating paint.
  • Vance Kirkland, a Colorado painter and synesthete, spoke of transposing sounds into colors, allowing the classical music he listened to determine his palette. Seven of his paintings are featured in the exhibition, including early watercolor paintings based on landscapes and later abstract canvases inspired by his growing fascination with outer space and the cosmos.
  • Daniel Mullen collaborated with artist and filmmaker Lucy Cordes Engelman on paintings that convey Engelman’s experience of synesthesia. The hard-edged geometric paintings, titled “Future Monuments,” give viewers an experience that is optically kinetic.
  • Anne Patterson, a synesthete who sees shape and color when she hears sounds, combines architecture, sculpture, light, video, music and scent in her immersive, interactive projects. The exhibition includes two of her sculptures made from steel, resin and piano wire that become kinetic when hung in space; small watercolor drawings inspired by Clemency Burton-Hill’s book “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day,” and a set of process drawings that help viewers understand the way sound informs her work. Viewers can hear the music that inspired her drawings at a listening station.


ART BREAKS—12:30-12:45 p.m. Thursdays. Staff and docents will offer 15 minutes of conversation about a single artwork in the exhibition in this new feature.

EVENING EXHIBIION TOURS—4:30 and 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, Feb 23 and March 16

AFTERNOON ART—1:30 to 4:30 p.m. for families with children ages 5 through 12. Fridays, Jan. 27, Feb. 17 and March 10.

GALLERY WALKS—5-7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 and March 10

ARTIST TALK WITH BRAD JOHNSON—4 p.m. Saturday, March 18. Johnson will discuss “Prospects of a Misplaced Year,” his five-chapter immersive installation inspired by Idaho and Pacific Northwest landscapes and composer Andy Akiho’s 2017 piano quintet.

The gallery, at 191 Fifth St. East in Ketchum, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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