For most of us, the only time we can hear colors is after a healthy psychedelic trip. But for Jack Coulter, a 24-year old artist based in Belfast, Ireland, this is just a fact of life. Coulter has synesthesia, a rare neurological disorder that causes people to mix up sensory modalities. Thus someone might hear a sound that causes them to see a particular color or think of a particular shape. Little is known about how synesthesia works at the neurological level. Incredibly rare, the phenomenon only affects about four percent of the population, but estimates on its prevalence vary widely.
His strange problem turned into something beautiful—Coulter found he could use it for creating art. In the past few years his art was used on SOAK’s debut album, Before We Forget How to Dream, which was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. That same year, he produced a limited-edition print for the 2015 GQ Men of the Year Awards, which ended up in the hands of people like Samuel L. Jackson and Keith Richards. The Arts Council Collection, a leading British collection of contemporary art, purchased a painting, making Coulter the youngest artist to ever have a work added to that collection.
PRØHBTD caught up with the art world’s rising star to talk about what it’s like to live with synesthesia and what types of music look the best.
When was the first time you noticed you could hear color?
My earliest memory was the sound of my own heartbeat resonating harsh iridescent pulses in front of my eyes, in harmony with every thud of my heart. I was sitting in my living room when it was dead silent as a kid, it was literally like something from a film. I was so young at the time and hadn't ever heard my heartbeat before, so in that moment, even as a child, I realized something really fucking cool was happening. However, it made me terrified that there was something severely wrong with me, I immediately had a migraine straight after it happened.
How long before you realized that this was an uncommon thing?
I thought it was weird even as a kid. You're very naive as a child, so I thought, this must be what happens? Everything from my childhood is so fuzzy, the only prominent memories I have are steeped in color.
Were you always interested in visual art or did your synesthesia push you in that direction?
It's been in my life since I was a small child, my mum literally had me in major galleries when I was just a few days old. Art was everywhere for me as a child. My house was full of prints from 1940s abstract expressionism as well as my Aunt Christine's original paintings. She was an artist as well, who used the boldest colors I'd ever seen.
I still don't know why I've ended up here, it's like someone just said "okay, this will be your life" when I was born. I wasn't in a primary or secondary school that focused on art. Just standard schools in Belfast like everyone else. Yet something deep within me was always seduced by art, paint and artists. That's why I've been doing it from such a young age. You don't have a clue about anything when you're young, yet I was always painting. I never understood it back then and why everything that happened did, yet I do now.
Some things had to happen for me to be here now. It's stitched deep within me, growing up it made me feel less alone. I don't believe in God, yet I genuinely do feel there are people born to change things. “The chosen one” ironically, as that was my Aunt Christine's nickname for me. There are other fucking incredible artists out there, yet I just feel as if this is supposed to be happening to me. How else can I explain everything in my life thus far?
My dream was always to change people's lives, as the world is quite a stretch. Leave that to people like John Lennon. Now, at 24 years old, my life has totally changed. I'm just about to hit 100,000 followers on Instagram, which blows my mind. I want to be the artist of our generation, and striving for that has already brought me to great heights. It's like saying to someone, "You have one day to make £100,000" and you go out and try your absolute hardest and only make say, £5,000—that's still a success. I don't see the point in not giving it my all when I've been dealt this hand.
Can you explain what synesthesia is like? It’s difficult to imagine.
The only way I can describe my everyday life, even minus the sound, is like when you turn the saturation up full on your TV. My visuals when hearing color are easy to understand now for me as an adult. When I hear a sound, I get a color or hue. I obviously get shapes and forms, yet sometimes they won't exactly work for the painting. However, my actual vision is severely heightened, it's laced with tetrachromacy—things and objects literally change color for me. Sometimes it's so much that it's like a person is playing with the colors of my life on Photoshop.
I wish people could have my eyes and brain for an hour, then everyone will finally get it. It's incredibly difficult trying to explain what's going on to a neurologist or doctor—they have no clue, and it makes me feel like an alien sometimes. All I want is for my audiovisual migraines to go away forever, yet I know that's not going to happen. They make me physically sick. It aggravates me sometimes too because every now and again I go distant, even if I'm getting a coffee or speaking with someone. I'm mesmerized by colors I simply can't escape. They occupy my being 24/7.
I can deal with it better now though, as an adult. It's like when you first feel depressed, you're like, "Shit I'm going to feel like this forever, am I going to die, what's wrong with me?" Then you begin to look at depressive thoughts for what they are, and you observe. That's what I do now, I observe the colors in a physical and sensory manner. It's something built within me and always will be.
What’s the best music for synesthesia? Is there a genre or artist that invokes the most pleasant visuals?
If you mean the most stimulating visually for me, it honestly depends on a lot of factors. My emotional state plays a part in the process of listening. Growing up it was always artists such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Bruce Hornsby, Nina Simone and Van Morrison. Van is actually a fan of my work now, which is crazy!
I can get beautiful colors from a song I don't necessarily like, then grotesque awful hues from ones I love. My favorite band to paint is The 1975. They're a sign of the times in music, I feel my work is quite representative of the times in art. It's not boring art world shit. Matty loves my work and owns a huge original titled “September” which I painted to their song “Paris.” I also sent him a description of the piece with the painting and a polaroid, basically what went on in its creation. I wanted to let him know I genuinely have synesthesia and I'm not one of these dicks giving their music or art credibility. Take my synesthesia away, I'll still outdo any other painter in terms of technique, technicalities.
It all came about when Mike Crossey showed a photo of it to him. It's a piece I'm immensely proud of and it's such a wonderful thing he owns it. The 1975 are my favorite band, I'm not a weird stan, I'm just fascinated by the music for my practice as well as enjoyment. I feel lucky to have an audience who also loves them. Their overall artistry can be confusing to people, yet once you get it, you're in for good. I feel like that with my art, and it's quite a cool place to be creatively and artistically. As it's incredibly confusing at first and will explode your brain a bit, yet then becomes simple in its essence once you get it.
Do you smoke cannabis? If so, how does it affect your synesthesia?
I mean, of course, it's 2018. It should be legal everywhere. However, I'm more interested in the health benefits aiding autism, seizures and cancer. I wouldn't use it or drugs as a “tool”' for my art. It didn't exactly work out for Basquiat, even though he's a hero of mine. I've got enough weird stuff going on in my brain already. Not being in control of myself freaks me out. I would rather create something knowing that it came from me, not a substance. It personally helped me with very severe migraines and when I struggled with anorexia. Food was the worst thing in the world for me, and weed made me eat without intrusive thoughts at times. Weed, for me, is always for experiencing music in a new way. I always hear things I didn't before.
I don't want to mention anything on other substances, we've all done things. There's nothing romantic about any of it. It's not like in the movies or what your friends or rock stars tell you. The reality is you'll die and I've seen it.
I'm obviously talking about hard drugs, not weed. I get people messaging me on Instagram saying they're dropping acid and other drugs to look at my paintings every day, literally every single day. I don't know how to feel about that if I'm honest. I don't want to provoke that in anyone. I have a lot of young people looking up to me at the moment, and I don't want to misguide anyone, so I'll keep some things to myself.
Are your paintings technically soundscapes? Do they represent the music you are listening to at the time?
Yeah, technically they are. However, I have been painting for 13 years in my garage since I was a child—if someone else tried to paint music, it would be a mush of different colors with no structure, sense of completion or fluency to the song or composition. I've seen a few other artists with synesthesia and I don't believe it. Even when I'm doing a drip painting, people think it's a “mess,” which is utter bullshit. Sometimes the piece is aggressive, that's how I see it. The layering in drip paintings are so indescribably complex, even the drying process. My use of vodka, spirits within paint all match out my prescribed visuals. A piece such as Mendelssohn's “Violin Concerto,” which I painted live with The London Chamber Orchestra, is one of the most complex compositions in history. It was soft, up, down, side to side, aggressive, beautiful, ambient, erratic—I had every single element within that piece, the last stage was dripping due to its audacity.
I've been getting a lot of hate for that from unconscious people who don't get it. If someone was told, "You have to do justice to Mendelssohn's ‘Violin Concerto’ in under 30 minutes,” also being the first artist in history to paint with an orchestra of this manner in front of a huge audience, also streamed live worldwide, collaborating with the most gifted orchestral musicians in London, and being projected on a huge screen above them, with a British Vogue journalist [Rosalind Jana] watching and people such as Jack Garratt in the audience, and then have the piece structured to perfection so that their last note is also my last drip of paint—I don't think they could do it. The clip that The London Orchestra made has 500,000 views on my Instagram, half a million people! To anyone who says I don't know what I'm doing in that sense, they don't have a clue. I genuinely would love to see them even attempt what I do. I've got to a stage now where I can physically and mentally establish a song's overall visual on canvas.
People have got really annoyed with synesthesia and my art saying, "I'm guessing you could do the exact same painting again?" That's fucking impossible. It's not like a Mondrian where you can literally just copy it square for square every single time. A song can change vastly in visuals for me, even if it's a live version or dictated by my surroundings, emotions, feelings in that moment. I read something once from a professional art forger, who could copy any single painting in art history. However, the only artists he couldn't copy were the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock being the main one. I think that answers everyone's question.