Smells Like…Berlin?

Experiencing the world through five senses can be intense. With the gifts of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell we interpret our surroundings, filtering out important pieces of data from a sea of information. Yet for some, like artist and synaesthete Barbara Ryan, things are a little more complicated. Synaesthesia is the condition in which one experiences two or more sensory impressions at the same time, such as reading a word that has a corresponding smell of lavender. Many famous creatives have been blessed with the trait, David Hockney serving as one of the more famous examples. Eager to find out more about this rare condition and how Ryan incorporates it into her art, I met up with her during her recent trip to Berlin at the opulent Niche, a perfumery based in Prenzlauer Berg.

Dismissing her gift as not necessarily positive, Ryan explains, “You imagine that everyone else is experiencing the world in the same way, but then when you start to describe things people give you a funny look, so from an early age one realizes certain things you just avoid.” Only acknowledging her gift of polymodal synaesthesia around the age of 28, Ryan had assumed, like many other synaesthetes (or “Synnies”), that everyone shared her unique perceptions.

Purple Prose

She recalls the challenging episode of being taught the alphabet at school: “I remember the sounds of language; I was already aware of their colors. All of the vowels when I hear them are on a blue-grey spectrum, but ‘O’ can go a bit grey-orange depending on how it’s pronounced. When the teacher was drawing an ‘A’ it didn’t look right because ‘A’ is a blue sound. I also had to write it in pencil, and the smell of the pencil gave me this nasty sensation in my nose. The whole thing was most unpleasant from a sensory point of view.”

Barbara Ryan at NichePolymodal synaesthesia can be all encompassing. Artist Barbara Ryan at Niche. Photo: C. Phillips 

This ability to “see” letters as different colors has not left Ryan, although she says, “I write like everyone else does now––I have to do it in black and white.” Having polymodal synaesthesia is also not always easy, “If I’m in a very noisy pub and there’s music blaring out and people talking, then I get a sensory overload. It’s quite similar to mixing paint in that if you put all the colors together you get a sludgy brown, but then it goes black––it’s like a black crosshatching over everything. As well as having too much in my ears, it’s somewhere between my mind’s eye and reality; it’s projecting, just black crosshatching over everything. It becomes black and scratchy.”

Colorful Instincts 

Despite these occasional issues, Ryan has embraced her gift and uses her polymodal synaesthesia as the basis for her artistic work. After studying art in college and starting a degree specializing in wood, metal and plastic, she switched to printmaking, although “I didn’t incorporate my talent into my work straight away. In hindsight I can see why I did things in certain drawings and paintings; you know when you’re doing something instinctively and you don’t need to think about it. It’s only really in more recent years that I’ve worked deliberately with my synaesthesia.”