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By Jennifer Johnston
Dec 4, 2013 - 10:23:47 AM

I think we can all agree that you can’t taste a triangle. Or smell a seven. With the exception of a close relationship between odors and flavors (and yet our mysterious willingness to still eat brussels sprouts and blue cheese), most of us would report that our senses operate independent of one another.
Most of us.
There are some who have walked among us – William Shakespeare, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Lloyd Wright to name a suspected few – for whom the senses involuntarily mingle. And yes, as you might have guessed, their cool contrariety tends to be an artistic gift. In fact, it is estimated to be eight times more prevalent in writers, musicians, and artists.
It’s called synesthesia, and it is a bona fide neurological condition characterized by a mixing of the senses. People with the synesthesia may see colors and movement in sounds, numbers, or words. (For those of you keeping track, Stevie Wonder lost his sight shortly after birth, but has proven an ability to perceive color.)
Young Lowcountry artist Virginia Monahan has color-sound synesthesia, which allows her to see colors or patterns when she hears certain notes, pitches, or combinations of music. Whether the recognition of this attribute steered her deliberately toward art or it was simply discovered along her artistic journey, she clearly employs it to her advantage. She trusts in where it leads her mind’s eye and, eventually, her paintbrush, just as she has faith in what her hand draws when she creates a “blind contour.”
This intuitive painter, sketcher, and photographer lives in Summerville, but spends as much time as she can visiting her father here on Daniel Island. It is a place Virginia is artistically and recreationally thankful to have discovered, though she went to high school just up the road at Fort Dorchester High School, where she was the school’s first student to participate in the International Baccalaureate Art program. Today, her sketchbooks are utilized as templates and samples for prospective program participants. It was a rigorous program, but just the outlet Virginia needed. She doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t creating art, though she does recall being the kind of youngster who would draw on her clothes, doodle on her friends’ arms, and put crayons between her toes so that she could color with her feet.
It is her unconventional take on art, adopted as a child and refined as an adult, which will be celebrated during the month of December when Virginia shares her paintings and drawings on the walls of the Honeycomb Café. Ahead of this show, we were teeming with questions for this smart, ever-evolving artist.
Jennifer Johnston: So, you are a painter and a photographer. Which did you study, which garners more of your time, and which do you prefer?
Virginia Monahan: My degree was focused on painting, but photography has always been really close to my heart. I enjoy being able to pick up my camera and take it anywhere, and sometimes my photos become a major inspiration for a new painting. As of now, I’m only planning on showing my paintings and my blind contour sketches at Honeycomb because the basis for both works are the same: looking at a still life or object and trusting my eyes enough that I don’t need to look at the canvas or paper while I’m drawing or painting it. These series were mostly about listening to my gut and feeling the colors as they came to me.
JJ: The blind contour sketches are so intriguing. Is it fair to assume the process is much more complex than assumed at first blush?
VM: The blind contour exercise is something I learned to do in a college course. It’s meant to be a tool so you can trust your eyes and really study what it is you’re looking at. We would have a still life or model to look at, and you place your drawing tool on the paper but you never take your eyes off the subject, or lift your hand from off the paper. You trace your eyes around the edge (contour) of the subject and you try to solidify the connection between hand and eye so much so that you don’t need to look at what you’re sketching. You attempt to end the contour line where you began, and when you think you’re finished, you just stop. Sometimes the images come out looking a bit primitive or child-like, but that’s what I love most about them. I had a professor in school that fully believed that the most honest and beautiful art came from young children, because they weren’t bogged down by insecurities or various training -- they just created something from a pure and open place in their minds. That’s what my blind contours seem to bring me back to, a place inside myself that isn’t thinking too much or trying too hard. The ones I’ll have at Honeycomb have a bit of color added to them, to further connect them to the paintings (which also started out as blind contours).
JJ: What catches your eye? Is it remotely predictable, and is it dependent on factors independent of the subject (i.e. lighting, movement around it, your mood)?
VM: This one’s a tricky question, because I don’t feel like it’s predictable to me but others might say something else. The thought process that occurs in my mind when I see something or someone of interest is so quick, I don’t really have anything else to do besides take a quick photo or write a quick note to myself about an idea to use for later. I’m always taking pictures with my phone and if you were to see all of them, a huge chunk is solely just for color perspective or composition setup. For example: taking a few photos at a traffic light because the bright red is vibrating against an early periwinkle blue sky, and I just need to document that dialogue before the sun rises a little more and that blue dissipates. Or seeing a group of people at a restaurant who are all wearing green and the chairs are casting shadows on the floor all around them like a web. It’s hard to explain how all this works, but I suppose it’s just predictably unpredictable.
JJ: Okay, so how does your color-sound synesthesia impact your artistry?
VM: It’s one of my most-utilized tools and the reason why most of my paintings are so brightly colored. I can be in the passenger seat of my sister’s car listening to music and then the shadows around us change or the rain can hit the windshield and suddenly, I have an idea for a new piece that connects it all together, including the colors I see when I hear the chorus of our new favorite song. All my art training and sensitivity to sound and light and emotion fuses to everything I do and see, and I can’t help but try to interpret it the best way I can. Certainly when I go to a concert and the lighting is matching perfectly with the song, I feel compelled to capture it or at the very least, make a list in my head of the colors I saw.
JJ: Given the inspiration you glean from music, would you aspire to do artwork for recording artists? Which bands or vocalists would be at the top of your list?
VM: Oh goodness, I would love to incorporate my art into the music world somehow. When I think of art design for album covers or concert posters my first thought goes to Stanley Donwood and his artistic ties to Radiohead, my favorite band of all time. He’s worked with them really closely since the mid 90s, and even produced pieces for Thom Yorke’s other musical projects. I cannot think of their music without imagining his art; they’re completely inseparable to me. I’ve also been hugely into David Bowie from an even younger age, and I adore not only his evolving sound but also his readiness to experiment and explore his image.
JJ: Tell us about the series of photos on your website with the subjects putting their hands over their faces. What is the message you wish to convey, and were these spontaneous or deliberately placed in their settings?
VM: The identity series I worked on was intended to be a small one and just of the people I saw regularly, or am connected to in a very deep way. I was thinking of my senior thesis show in college, where I took “portraits” of a handful of people and compiled them to make a foundation for an abstract painting. I decided to forego the traditional sensibilities of what a portrait is, where the whole face is seen and often the background is made simple so that the subject is the central focus. I took my family members and close friends and had them cover their face, the most common identifier, and made the viewer focus on other things: what their hands look like, how their outfit looks with their hair color, whether they smoke or bite their nails or wear jewelry or have scars. The locations were mostly just what was available to me, although some were premeditated. I wanted the individual to make sense in the surrounding, and since I have an advantage by knowing them already, I decided to make certain judgments. The point was to purposely make you look elsewhere for clues into their personality, not into their eyes or face. It creates a disconnect that I find intriguing, and forces you as a viewer to actively search for meaning.
Take a closer look at Virginia Monahan’s blind contours and paintings during the month of December at Honeycomb Café in Daniel Island. Learn more about the artist and view additional work at Inquiries about specific pieces or commissioning artwork should be sent to

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