A Sense of the Abstract
Jane McGrath is a synesthete. This means when she sees people, she also sees lights and colors surrounding them, different swirling hues like the surface of Jupiter, or jagged granular bits of colors like coral in a shallow blue sea. It’s not hard to understand what she sees that the rest of us don’t, because she paints it. A portrait of musician Kim Collins looks like a great river seen from outer space, bordered by pink and yellow landscapes. It might not look like the Kim Collins you see singing in the Smoking Flowers, and it’s not an image you could put on a driver’s license, but to Jane, it’s simply what she sees.
Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense (taste, smell, visual, auditory, etc.) triggers a corresponding reaction in another entirely different sense. Names can taste funny, and the sound of a trumpet can make a person see the color blue. Some two to four percent of the world’s population are synesthetes. They aren’t crazy; there’s nothing cognitively dysfunctional about them, and almost all synesthetes report that they never knew there was anything different about themselves until well into their teen or adult years. You mean your face doesn’t itch when a dog barks? You mean I’m different somehow?
“Like most synesthetes, I was unaware that my experiences were vastly different to anyone around me for most of my childhood,” Jane says on her website. “It was not until my twenties that I discovered that I was not alone in my experiences and that they could be attributed to the condition.”
Jane’s portraits are as unlike Olan Mills as portraiture can be. “The thing about my portraits,” Jane says over a cup of coffee at the Post, “I see people with kind of moving colors and textures around them, so they’re abstract pieces, based on the colors and textures I see. I have both sound and color synesthesia, which is where you see music at the same time as you’re hearing it, and I also have person color synesthesia.” So, you can see someone’s aura? “Yeah,” she enthuses, “I started painting them, because it can be a little overwhelming at times, especially if I’m out at a gig — my husband is in music — and if there’s color coming from the music and color coming from the people around me, it can be a lot sometimes.”
A stylish, blonde 40-year-old native of Melbourne, Australia, Jane moved to Nashville three years ago and works as a producer and director for the Food Network. “I’d say I do 80 percent TV work and 20 percent painting,” she says. “I would love to be a full-time painter, but it’s tough out there. We’ve all got bills to pay.”
She’s painted several East Side luminaries, including Robyn Hitchcock, and in his case, her synesthesia took on a clairvoyance. “His favorite color is green, and I did not know that before I painted him, and his painting is almost entirely green, all different shades of it, waves of green.” Like much of her work, it looks like a magnified smear under a microscope — something minute, blown up to show a whole world no one ever knew was there.
“I’ve always drawn and painted,” McGrath says, “but I’ve not been doing these types of paintings long. I’m also a silversmith, so I make jewelry, so I’m always creating something. I think that’s why I like making TV shows about food, too. Because whether you’re creating new dishes, or art, it’s all creative.”
The existence of synesthesia has been documented back to the ancient Greeks. The name comes from the Greek words “syn” (same) and “asthesia” (sensation.) In the 1700s, synesthetes were employed in Europe in the construction of musical instruments, tinkering with this and that until a musical note displayed the proper visual blue, red or whatever color was desired. The first known medical study of synesthesia was in Germany in 1812.
But little is known about how synesthesia develops. It has been suggested that it develops during childhood when children are intensively engaged with abstract concepts for the first time. This hypothesis — referred to as semantic vacuum hypothesis — explains why the most common forms of synesthesia are grapheme-color, spatial sequence, and number form. These are usually the first abstract concepts that educational systems require children to learn.
No matter its source, Jane has brought her own brand of synesthesia to Nashville, and found a community that welcomed her way of seeing. “We moved to Nashville not really sure what it would be like and didn’t realize we would fall in love with it and build a community around us so quickly,” Jane says. “I think that’s what living in East Nashville gave us straight up. It gave us this really good community of close friends and musicians, going places like The 5 Spot all the time, seeing the same faces, so I think we’ll be here a while. When my husband is working in music it’s kind of crazy to move somewhere else. So our plan is to stay here a while.” No doubt seeing saturated hues the rest of us can only guess at.