There are landmarks in an artist’s career. First there’s the initial sale of a piece of work. Then comes inclusion in a group show and, with any luck (and, of course, talent), the solo show. But the crowning glory arrives — often, alas, posthumously — when the artist’s work is presented in the hallowed halls of a museum.
For West Tisbury photographer Marcia Smilack, who is very much alive and kicking, and relatively young, the museum part of the trajectory has arrived ahead of schedule. As we speak, she is on her way to McMaster University Museum in Hamilton, Ontario, to visit her work alongside paintings by David Hockney, Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky, to name a few.
The exhibit, running through Nov. 15, is entitled Art And The Mind, and it marks the first event, according to curator Greta Berman of Juilliard’s Liberal Arts faculty, “to place genuinely synesthetic artists in context and examine shared characteristics in their art.”
Synesthesia, which appears to lodge in the brains of many artists, writers and musicians, describes an involuntary joining of the senses. Synesthetes, in childhood, tend to think everyone hears colors, or perceives letters in different hues, or imbibes various textures in musical notes. When they learn about the rarity of their experience (scientists calculate that one out of 100 people are synesthetic), they generally stop talking about it. Recent interest and research in the field should lead budding synesthetes to feel more comfortable with their gifts.
Ms. Smilack explains, “We’ve been able to identify long-ago synesthetes only by chance comments or anecdotes. For instance, Vincent Van Gogh, when he was a kid, was ‘fired’ by his piano teacher because all young Vincent wanted to talk about was the colors of the notes.”
The art exhibit at McMaster joins forces with the university’s neuroscience department to shed light on assumptions about art and the brain. It involves a conference, Synesthetic Relationship To Art; Ms. Smilack, who will be addressing the crowds, has retitled it, What Does A Lecture Look Like?
This Vineyard artist began life in Columbus, Ohio, migrated to Brown University, received a Ph.D. in English, taught at Boston College and wrote articles for the Boston Globe. During the summers of the 1980s, she rented Marijane and Matthew Poole’s cottage overlooking Menemsha harbor. In honor of the dazzling view, she bought a camera.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but every night I photographed the sunset — same scene, different light and colors. I taped them to a wall with an overall impression that sunsets are very symphonic.”
She was soon to discover that music attended every photographic shoot. “One evening as I walked by a pond, I heard bagpipe music. It appeared to emanate from a reflection on the water. The volume wasn’t loud, but I could see it and simultaneously hear it, and that was the moment that I clicked the camera.”
On another occasion, as she studied a pond shining like molten gold, she distinctly heard cello music. She backed up, the music ceased, then she tried again to walk into the moment. Again the quality of light combined with the notes of a cello. Again she clicked her camera.
That some magical synthesis is taking place can be seen in Ms. Smilack’s work: More than mirror images in water, they are, first and foremost, arrestingly beautiful, but also weird and provocative, as if fragments from an unfathomable but strangely stirring dream have followed us into waking life. And as subjective and even supernatural as the experience of synesthesia may sound to non-synesthetes, neuroscientists have located that part of the brain that conjoins senses when it lights up in MRI tests.
Meanwhile, when Ms. Smilack’s reflectionist photographs began to receive an enthusiastic response from art dealers — and buyers! — a coincidentally nascent interest in synesthesia brought the artist to the attention of researchers and vice versa. “Twenty years ago,” she relates with a laugh, “I first heard of synesthesia, but turned away from it when I found it in the dictionary between seizures and syphilis. Then in 1999 I picked up a New York Times piece and read an interview with Carol Steen [also represented in the McMaster exhibit], a synesthete and artist in New York city. She put into words what I had known but had never said to anyone, not even to myself. The article included her e-mail address. I sent a message with the header, ‘I hear with my eyes.’ She answered right away, ‘Welcome to the club, you’re in great company.’”
This new interest in the field has led to invitations for Ms. Smilack to show her art — and to lecture about her modus operandi for achieving that art — around the country, in Europe and now, in Canada.
When Ms. Smilack first crosses the threshold of the museum gallery hosting the event, she’ll see three Hockneys ahead of her. As she swivels her head to the left, she’ll take in several Kandinskys and five Smilacks. What a rush! Also included in the exhibit, in addition to those already mentioned, are artists Joan Mitchell, Charles Burchfield and Tom Thomson. In keeping with the dead artists tradition of museum shows, only three out of the seven contributors are among the living.
McMaster’s curators anticipate the exhibition will bring about a new and intense kind of visual thinking. They also hope to reach beyond the bodies that will gather in the physical plant by producing a catalogue with essays by six scholars and the inclusion of lush photographs. Curator Berman writes, “The catalogue will ensure that the scholarship will be accessible to many who can’t attend, as well as providing a lasting record of the research involved.”
Meanwhile those interested in a preview of Ms. Smilack’s work can go online to marciasmilack.com.