The Painter Who Hears Sound In Color

For Irish painter Jack Coulter, life is full of "tetrachromatic hues."

Jack Coulter sees his own heartbeat. People without his condition hear their own heartbeat, and feel it, and Coulter does that, too. But to him, it also radiates color, like the violet glow you see when you look into darkness with an infrared camera. 

Coulter has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition where stimulation of one sense creates an impression by another sense, like hearing a noise and seeing it manifested in color. On stormy nights, he has a recurring dream where he is enveloped in vivid color formations he describes as crystalline holograms that pulsate with the sound of raindrops hitting his window. Asleep and awake, the harsher the sound, the harsher the visualization. Other people with synesthesia experience it differently, reporting an ability to taste color or feel music brushing against their bodies. It's a personal condition.

Working as an artist in Northern Ireland, Coulter creates technicolor paintings with sticks, knives, broken glass and other found objects, coaxing the cheapest paint available into rhythmic formations. Coulter's art has attracted an Instagram following of over 50,000, and he says that prints sold on his website are snapped up so quickly that he's run out of printing materials before.

On the Internet, his fans are reduced to numbers, and he can forget each one corresponds to a real person, although their individual messages remind him otherwise. Coulter is shy. From a very early age, he realized that he experienced the world differently than his friends and family. "I lived in my own world," the artist wrote to The Huffington Post. 

Now, as an adult, he prefers not to speak on the phone. HuffPost interviewed Coulter over email, receiving in his responses both self-reflection and meandering credos. The 21-year-old isn't short on his eccentrically worded beliefs. (A sample: "Preconceived notions asphyxiate reflections of pure expression.") Below is that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Were you always interested in the arts?

Of course. My mum calls me an "art veteran" because my first visit to an art gallery was just a few days after I was born.

I was surrounded by art as a child. My aunt Christine was an abstract printmaker; she was my greatest influence, more so than any known artist. My mum had her prints exhibited all over my house growing up, and I am still to this day fascinated by her work. I have a vivid memory of being at one of my aunt’s exhibitions as a child. I could "hear" her paintings. I used to love showing her my latest paintings every day after school; she mentored me throughout the earliest stages of my artistry. We were very close, and I feel very privileged to have had her influence. She always believed in me, even when no one else did. I sadly lost my aunt to suicide the day before I began art college. 

As a child in my house, it was like growing up in the museum of modern art. My mum and aunt Christine were obsessed with hanging paintings. I always knew that art would be there for me. Art was sewn into my skin from a very early age. I feel sorry for certain kids whose parents are closed, narrow-minded, unconscious individuals.  

How do you plan each of your paintings?

I never plan my paintings. My work arises from a previously unborn life form, never from an existence which contrives a 'pure' state of psychic automatism. I intend each perceptual abstraction to distribute an abundance of spiritual density. In return, I receive a psychological symmetry, freeing mind and manner. Aesthetic spiritual experience authenticates my work’s inclusive perception of an immutable contingency, thereby working in a perpetual realm of self-realization contributing to a transcendental abundance of creation. "Higher" levels of negative renewal existentially withdraw all doubt from my workings. Inner content rarely arises within. I must only paint to consecutively parallel my emotion. It’s an instinctual, spontaneous endeavor -- the meaning of art exists within the creation of art.

If I’m not creating art, I feel dead inside. I crave art. I don’t believe in God or any concept surrounding theology, although my love for art is almost religious. It all stems from fear of death. My visual perceptions are a constant reminder that I am alive. 

What's your favorite reaction to your art so far?

I received a heartbreaking message from a young girl who was about to commit suicide, when coming across my art changed her mind. I have no control over how an individual will perceive my work. I’ll never forget that moment. She now has her whole life to live. A painting of mine has now dictated her entire life’s existence.

I also very recently received a heartbreaking yet truly inspiring message from a girl regarding my painting titled "Cancer." She reached out to tell me that her mum is severely ill, suffering from Stage IV ovarian cancer, and her mum’s star sign is also Cancer. Her mum had bought a print of my painting for Christmas, which is now framed in her room. It was such an incredibly beautiful message and truly touched my heart -- her mum sounds like a very inspirational woman. She thanked me, although I’m the one who should be thanking her.

What's your favorite mundane activity?

Reading. It’s misconstrued as being mundane. Literature holds a certain type of magic -- it allows each person reading the same passage an intrinsic visual experience in separate minds.

I also love charity shops, or "thrift stores" for all of the American readers. There’s no greater feeling than finding something that truly means something to you. It was my mum and aunt who introduced me to second-hand stores as a child. Ahead of their time, before it became kind of "cool" to shop in those stores. I am also hugely interested in fashion. If I’m not painting, I’ll usually be designing on fabric. I adore designers such as Emilio Pucci and Alexander McQueen.

Bookstores everywhere are setting up adult coloring book displays. New research has also suggested coloring relieves stress and anxiety. Do you ever color? 

I hate that classic story of someone who was an artist when they were younger, although gave it up as they couldn’t pay the bills with it. They end up in a job they hate. If you truly want to do something, you will. Blaming certain situations for your failures is ridiculous. Frida Kahlo was in a very serious accident when she was 18 years old. This prevented her from ever having children. She suffered three terminated pregnancies, and spent many months in a full body cast. Even though she was in excruciating pain, she painted canvases with the little energy she had, and also a full design on her body cast. That is true passion.

I always color, with anything that I can find. I keep a lot of "color journals." I often paint with rose petals or seeped fruit juice when I run out of paint. Nature beholds life’s richest luminosity. 

Do you think synesthesia has made you a more creative person?

To a certain extent, yes, as it’s very inspiring, although it’s just one sole element that stimulates certain areas of my artistry. I have been working in my garage since I was a child, mastering my own personal technique. I sometimes wish that everyone could view the world through my eyes, the color richness of everyday life is indescribable. Every single moment is immersed in tetrachromatic hues.

My imagination has always emanated curiosity. I once thought that I was God and everything around me was a product of my imagination. I was such a strange child.

Have you met other people with your condition?

I actually haven’t met anyone personally who has synesthesia. However, a lot of individuals who have it reach out to me online. Synesthesia is an intricately personal condition; it differentiates vastly from each individual. Trying to explain it through written means is a very complex prospect, although it’s a little easier if you are an artist who has a visual form of communication.

What tips would you give people who want to appreciate their senses more fully?

When art is a pure expression of oneself, there is no greater high. The only way to achieve this is to place yourself in situations that ignite stimulation. Each one of us is an undeveloped photograph; we only develop if we’re exposed to darkness. Our sensitivities are born in the dark. It’s only until the full picture is developed that everything becomes clear.

True beauty exists in retrospect. I’ll finish with my favorite poem by Langston Hughes.

This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as you ever can -
Lest the song get out of hand. 

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him - and let his soul run wild.



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