Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Painting Music

Missouri-based artist Melissa McCracken paints music. McCracken is a synesthete – she can see colors in the sounds she hears. Hearing someone’s name or a song on the radio isn’t just noise to her, but interpreted as vibrant colors in her brain.

It wasn’t until she was 15 years old that McCracken realized she was different. One day, she asked her brother what color the letter “C” was, and then realized that not everyone “saw” what she did. In regards to her condition she writes, “Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful ‘brain malfunction’ of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song. Having synesthesia isn't distracting or disorienting. It adds a unique vibrance to the world I experience."

Although she graduated with a BA in Psychology in 2013, McCracken decided to pursue a career in the arts. Each of her paintings shares a title with a piece of music, because she paints the colors and textures she perceives as she listens to that particular song. Utilizing oil and acrylics, her creative goal is to allow a refreshing experience with the familiar, and to evoke new perceptions of rhythm and melody in her audience.

Tonight, Tonight - Smashing Pumpkins
Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon that is thought to affect an estimated 7% of the population. Other artists, such as Kanye West, have claimed to have synesthesia. Though I wouldn’t necessarily consider synesthesia to be a mental illness, it relates to mental illness in that it allows a person to be creative in a way that other people might not be able to access. Andreasen describes that many of her subjects thought that their creative ideas were “obvious.” In the same way, McCracken’s synesthesia makes her artwork obvious to her, but others fail to connect music with color in the same way. Also, McCracken’s experience has been isolating for her, similarly to how many mentally ill creatives feel isolated in their experiences. She has only met one other women with the same kind of synesthetic perceptions as her own.

McCracken’s paintings are on display at Hilliard Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, and are available for purchase on Etsy.

Andreasen, N. C. (2015, August 26). Secrets of the Creative Brain. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from


  1. I have heard of synesthesia before but I never really understood what it was until now. A lot of creatives have very unique ways of picturing things in their minds in order to create a novel idea. Einstein had his thought experiments that were quite unique to his own experience with solving a problem and I think this definitely relates to how Melissa is depicting her creativity. She is explaining a certain cognitive imagery that is unique to a very few amount of people and allowing others without this ability to explore this in a way that they could understand.

  2. Synesthesia had always been very interesting to me, and my freshman year at Loyola I met a someone who is a synesthete. Having spoken to her about how she experiences the world, I wonder if McCracken's art could really be described as more creative than any other's. What she is doing is simply painting the world as she experiences it, which is what most other artists do. However, most artists do not see colors when listening to music. What is fascinating for us is only so because we do not have the same neurology as McCracken or other synesthetes. This raises a broader range of questions about artists--do mentally ill artists who show how they see the world from their art truly count as creative? Were someone who perceives the world in a "normal" way to draw or paint the world as they saw it, audiences would not see the work as particularly creative. However, mentally ill people who experience life differently because of their illness would produce art that looks creative to the general population, but really took very little mental energy beyond drawing or painting what they normally see. Obviously, synesthesia is not a kind of mental illness, but the analogy here is that people who see the world differently because of how they are wired can capitalize on this to create art which seems unique and creative to those who see the world in a different way. So, does the wiring of one's brain count as creativity?

  3. I, too, had heard of synesthesia before. What is most interesting to me is the fact that this artist was able to overcome the very probable stigma of being different and using her difference to create art. I don't think that it is a question of who is more creative or who is less creative, but rather a matter of finding ways to use the tools and skills available to each individual and using them in a positive matter. Isn't the fact that McCracken was able to use her ability productively instead of thinking of it as a challenge itself an act of creativity, regardless of the product and outcome? Maybe this is not quite a Western way of looking at creativity...

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  5. I actually never knew what synesthesia even was until one of my friends at Loyola told me she is a synesthete. She told me that when she looks at me she sees purple and every person has their own color. It was super interesting to talk about and it definitely adds to the creativity of a person, specifically McCracken. I think it is really awesome that McCracken doesn't find having synesthesia distracting or disorienting. Through her art, McCracken makes synesthesia one of her strengths. She uses it to enhance her creativity instead of allowing it to make her feel completely isolated or different from everyone else. I can't even imagine being able to hear and see music like McCracken. The way I understand synesthesia is that it is different for every synesthete. So, how would McCracken's experience of synesthesia compare to another synesthete? Also, is there more to her creative process beyond her synesthesia and using it to paint the colors she sees in the music she hears?


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