Melissa McCracken, an artist who says she has synesthesia and paints colors she hears in sounds, worked on a piece inspired by the song "Pavane" by Faure in her studio in Kansas City. Shane Keyser | skeyser@kcstar.com

Meet an artist who sees orange in Michael Jackson songs and blue in the letter A

“Art was always the thing I wanted to do,” said Melissa McCracken, 27. “That was always in my back pocket as the definition of me.” Shane Keyser | skeyser@kcstar.com
Melissa McCracken says her working process generally starts in her car, where she’ll hear a song that provokes an image and then she'll go straight to her studio to paint it on a canvas. Shane Keyser | skeyser@kcstar.com

This may sound like a weird question, but what color is your favorite song?

Artist Melissa McCracken has an answer. It's in the paintings that hang on the walls of her cozy studio in Kansas City's Livestock Exchange Building overlooking Kemper Arena.

The big bright orange piece is a Debussy composition full of petal-y splotches of magenta and blue.

The smaller painting above and to the left of it with burgundy rivulets flowing down a field of yellow is something that came to mind listening to “Sundress” by Ben Kweller, one of her faves from high school. It only took her eight years to get the image out of her head and onto the canvas.

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The thunderstorm of gray with flashes of navy that hangs nearby is her painting of a song by violinist Tim Fain, whom she met on a trip to Israel.

“He said, ‘Can I play some music for you?’” she said. “I put on headphones and listened, and I don’t know if I was jet lagged or what, but I just started crying, and this was essentially the image I was experiencing in my mind. And to be sitting next to the person who created that beautiful, beautiful sound was just an overwhelming experience.”

The 27-year-old painter and Lee’s Summit native has a form of synesthesia, a cross-wiring of the brain where a stimulus in one sense provokes a response in another.

In her case, when she hears sounds, she says she sees colors. It's been present in her mind since she was an aspiring little artist at her preschool graduation.

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Today, after forays studying psychology and philosophy and art, she’s making a go of it creating abstract works of sounds and songs and moments.

“Art was always the thing I wanted to do,” she said. “That was always in my back pocket as the definition of me.”

What she didn’t always know, though, was that she perceived the world a little differently than others.

The first time she thought to talk about it with someone else was at age 12. She was going through her letters and asked her big brother if his letter “C” was yellow, too.

“I didn’t think that he didn’t see colors, I just thought that maybe he saw different colors,” she said. “And, being an older brother, he said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and I thought it was all the same and I didn’t question it again.”

In her teens, though, she’d say things to friends like, “Oh, your letter D is dark blue, too.” Or she’d solve math formulas by just knowing there was green in there somewhere. When she talked of colors and sounds and letters, friends and family would think she was just speaking in metaphor. Being a little weird maybe.

Then when she was picking out a ring tone for her phone, she told a friend she chose a Michael Jackson song because it was a shade of orange that perfectly complemented her blue phone.

“And she was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” McCracken said. “I honestly thought there was no way somebody else didn’t see that.’

Though she’s been able to find a way to express visually the things she’s hearing, there are times when her synesthetic process is a bit of a burden. She’ll meet someone for the first time, hear their name and remember it as blue. She rattles off her alphabet.

“A is blue. B is kind of brownish red. C is yellow. D is like a dark blue or dark green depending on the context. E is a really dark color kind of like D. F is light blue. G is green. H is reddish brown. I is white, J is canary yellow,” she said. “And so on.”

Or she’ll get songs stuck in her head but she can’t remember lyrics or melodies, only colors.

“I can’t relate that to anyone — ‘You know that song, it’s orange and got yellow spots?’” she said. “I’m kind of trapped in my own world.”

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Her working process generally starts out in her car, where she’ll hear a song that provokes an image. She'll immediately head back to the studio, get out her paints, smush them together on a palette and go straight to the canvas.

“A lot of times it doesn’t work out, and I'll throw things away,” she said. “My mom’s always supportive and like, ‘I want to go through your dumpster.’”

Her paintings hang in Blue Gallery and all of them have been sold. She’s had people ask her to paint their favorite songs. KU Med commissioned a painting for a waiting area.

She's tried to learn music — picking up the violin, guitar and flute only to give them up. She's now become interested in classical music.

At a recent string quartet performance with guided meditation at the Kauffman Center, the phenomenal acoustics of the building and the intimacy of the setting gave her all new experiences and inspirations.

"One song, 'Pavane,' I think it was called, it was so purple and blue and with little spirally things, and there was a lot of plucking involved in that song so it had these bubbles popping all over," she said. "Then there was 'Clare de Lune,' which was light and fluffy and yellow and summery, a spring blossomy kind of song."

The moments when she meets others with synesthesia can be a source of both relief and frustration. Even people with the same type of synesthesia can have totally different internal landscapes. She met a woman once with whom she shared interpretations of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”

“I remember seeing these kind of clouded white and pink and blue shapes, and the instruments came in at this sort of gold tone,” McCracken said. “And she drew out a sketch and it was very geometric and spirals and circles and squares. It was a totally different look. I’m like, 'How do you see that?'"

David Frese: 816-234-4463, dfrese@kcstar.com. Twitter: @DavidFrese

Coming up

"Melissa McCracken: Incandescence" shows at Blue Gallery May 31-July 28. An opening reception and artist's talk will be from 6 to 9 p.m., May 31, with a First Friday show from 6 to 9 p.m. June 1 at Blue Gallery. www.bluegalleryonline.com

The Kansas City Symphony presents “Sounds Relaxing” with guided meditation from Anita Bailey and chamber music selections on May 30 at 6:30 p.m at the Kauffman Center's Helzberg Hall. Tickets are $15. www.kcsymphony.org


Meet an artist who sees orange in Michael Jackson songs and blue in the letter A