Monday, November 2, 2009

The scent of Blue

When I was small, I seemed to see and feel things a little differently to everybody else, or so my mother seemed to think, though I was quite unaware, most of the time, of what other people did and felt.

Certain colours gave off a particular feeling and smell, the sounds of peoples' names prompted colours and shapes. I would be compelled to pick things up, if they were a certain colour, to feel them with my fingertips, or even my lips. Music always had  colour and form, as did the sounds of words.

Sometimes I would see a coloured haze around peoples' head or bodies, and colours or noises would give off a sensation of smell.  I didnt really think much of this, or the fact that Mum remarked on how odd it was when I remarked upon the colours of things which she only saw as black or white.
You are a strange child, she would say

I was much older when I read about the term synaesthesia, and it seemed to sound very much like the way I responded to things, as if the hard-wiring of my senses was a little bit off, or turned up to excess. At certain times I would have very strange reactions to things, to various physical sensations.  Nabokov wrote so synaethetically, that when I read "Speak, memory" I understood the language implicitly.

After I had children, my synaesthesia seemed to diminish somewhat. I figured that I probably had sensory overload, and my brain had closed down certain areas which were not immediately important.

Last week I managed to get to my studio.
The moment I closed the door behind me I felt a beautiful feeling come over me. I welcomed the smells, the traces of the indigo dying from last summer still hanging as a base note, the aroma of gum turpentine very faint. Cineraria leaves which had been simmering, the fragrant little cigarettes Shoufay smokes.

But today I have a small parcel: inside it is a CD and some pictures of paintings, originally Venetian, but currently in Paris. I begin to feel that strange soft buzzing in my face and hands.
I put on the music.

It is Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

It is so known yet unknown, so beautiful that images immediately seem to swell out of nowhere into my head. I hold my large fat brush, with Titian's girl beside me, and spread the colours: Ultramarine blue, a golden Olive green, Viridian, Indigo, turquoise. Light flickering on underwater skin.

As I paint I seem to fragment into some multidimensional world, where I am in the pastoral scene described by the music: edges of land and sea, indigo shadows, bright cliffs and undulating landforms. Birds.

There is light coming in the windows as I spread the layers of paint onto the surface. As I change colour, I become aware that I can smell them, sharply. Not the actual scent of paint, but the sharp smell of the colour itself: the Olive Green smells like rotting food, the Ultramarine sharp and salty, high and sweet, Indigo smells like the darkest tone of a rose.

I look at the detail of the sash in the Titian painting: he has used Ultramarine for the highlights of the fabric, and a golden shade of Olive green for the shadows, like shot silk. The same exact two colours i am using.

The Fantasia continues in my head. It has been quite some time since I found myself in this state. I wonder then, if Titian and the Venetians ever had the same sensation.

Closing the door behind me when I leave, the real world floods in.
I sit with the children later that afternoon and eat watermelon, wondering if I should share the sensation of falling into colours and sounds today,
 but find I haven't the words.


Eleanor said...

You are a tonic, thank you so much Fifi for your words and pictures.

Luhlahh said...

When I was I kid, I saw colours in the black and white tv. To me Humphrey B. Bear's tie was definately red. Most definatley.

Molly said...

I think you must be one of those lucky people who found the thing they were made to do....But if you hadn't, you could always have been a writer!

Leenie said...

It is a blessing that you have such abilities and weren't stifled and forced to conform because you were different. One wonders how many gifts are lost because a child sees and feels differently than others.

You expressed the spontaneous joy of creativity so beautifully. thanks

Reluctant Blogger said...

Ah see we are similar in some very odd ways. I too was synesthaestic as a child although not in the same way. I saw numbers differently to everyone else. I could look at a sum (involving big numbers) and know the answer - sometimes not precisely but near enough to be weird.

I don't have it now though. And I am the opposite to you - it is almost as if I don't see colour at all. I do see it but it doesn't stay in my head. When I close my eyes the colour is washed out and I can never remember the colours of people's clothes or furnishings.

I had always assumed I lost my odd abilities (and they had their uses) due to a bout of meningitis but I had my daughter around the same time so perhaps you are right and it was that instead.

Lovely to see you there in the photo!

fifi said...

Thanks Eleanor.

Molly, I would love to be a writer :-)

Leenie, yes I was lucky, you're right. I never thought of that, but I do think people just thought me a bit of an air-head.

RB< i was just thinking of you!

fifi said...

oh, and lou, so did I. But everyone had a halo....

Linda Sue said...

Such a delicious post- I think it may be intrinsic for artists to have more sensual experiences with colour and light and sound as well as textures...Artists are more alive, feel more and are more sensitive to EVERYTHING this human existance offers. That could be why we are mad...or at least thought to be.

verifiaction word is "inkous" isn't that inspiring!

little red hen said...

I saw colours in black and white tv too and was most disappointed when colour arrived as liked to imagine my own!
I think linda sue is right I do think artistic/creative people experience the world in a somewhat different way- regardless of whether they are actually synesthaestic. I had a discussion with some of the other teachers at school about the shift you feel in your head when you become focused on a piece of art work, I also talked about how sometimes the piece would talk to me and decide to be something quite different than I had first intended....I should have stopped talking at the point where I said I went to a different place in my head (I really didn't read their body language that well, they did not understand!)
Fifi I think the way you experience the world enables you to write in a way that has us right there with you...smelling hearing, feeling and drifting off into our own memories at the same time. I love it!

ganching said...

Spookily we were talking about this yeserday. Traybake can still reel off the colours of each day of the week.

A lovely post as always.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. There's a scent in your words that hit my senses as you entered your studio. It felt like flowing blue and green honey that doesn't stick to the sides, just lets you float on through while the magic gently touches the skin. "the traces of the indigo dying" - my, that is some image.

Pam said...

Fifi you would enjoy the book by Oliver Sacks,"Musicophilia". Have you read it? Chapter 7 is 'The Key of Clear Green:Synesthesia and Music'.He states with synesthesics..."letters or days of the week can have their own particular colours, another may feel that every colour has its own peculiar smell...". I know the book would resonate with you so much.I laughed at litte red hen's comment. Been there on the receiving end of those looks!Thank you for an informative and delightful post (loved the photos), at a time when I have just finished this intruiging and informative book.(pub.2007 by Pan Macmillan)

Mary said...

I dream in vivid colour.

My photography allows me to feel the world more deeply.

But I cannot smell colour- how gorgeous that would be...

Jellyhead said...

I have never smelt colours, but it must be an amazing experience to do so.

I do have very particular feelings about numbers - for example that odd numbers are untrustworthy, and 6 is the only truly perfect number.

I think all children have funny thoughts and feelings that many of us edit out, to varying degrees, in order to fit in with adult society. I'm so glad you have stayed untrammelled by mainstream expectations fifi!

Kirti said...

fifi, you are so lovely...

Meggie said...

I love your colours! I find scent the most powerful of my senses. I get scents, perfumes, smells, call it what you will.
I also see people in colours, though not all the time.
Music is also very powerful to sense, in my reality.
Your writing is so... special.

fifi said...

Linda Sue: Yes we are very sensitive to such things, though this is sometimes very disturbing. If I am in a colour scheme I find disturbing it can ruin my day.

Hen, I talk about that place often, and I think it is important to recognise that we do go to diffrent places in our heads.

Lmrb: I think you would rather like my studio, perhaps you should visit.

Pam, I will have to hunt that book down, I will go to abebooks and have a look. Sounds excellent.

Mary, you do feel the world very deeply and I love looking at the way you see it. I dont always smell colours, just something set me off.

jelly head: untramelled or naive, one of the two!

kirti, you are very lovely too.

thank you, so is yours. You seem to always understand people too.

Regulus said...

That's a really beautiful painting that you made. What does the line on the wall, "Inside the sea the skiff sails the sky"? That's really beautiful.

I'm sorry about your colleague Nick Waterlow. (I'm posting my comment here rather than over in the main entry.) The dean's comments about it being the worst kind of tragedy were spot on. Was it the case that his daughter got involved with a crazy guy? That's what it seems like at first blush.

I'll never forget your tribute to Bryan when he died and I will look for whatever tribute you write to Mr. Waterlow.

riseoutofme said...

Lovely post transported me, on a cellular level, to your paintings, your head, your humanity.

Thank you.