Sunday 30 September 2012

The blind man on the train

The blind man on the train

Around 1973, travelling the ferry-train from Paris to Calais to London, I found myself in a compartment with a blind man. Striking up a conversation, he asked me what my work was. “A visual artist? Tell me about your work”. Alas, every sentence I started was interrupted by the realisation that my description was totally inadequate. “I can appreciate sculpture”, he said, moving his hands in space as he modelled the shapes and forms he “saw”. “But what is this transparent, glowing watercolour you’re talking about?” 
Well, er, it’s like a stained-glass window, but with white paper shining through the transparent colours. “Really? How do you experience a stained-glass window?” And so on. He was blind from birth.

I felt as stupid as George W. Bush must have felt, after he spontaneously waved to Stevie Wonder. I had to force myself to abandon all my arty clichés and to search for alternative descriptors, linked to our feelings for heat and cold, our senses of space, taste and in particular, to the sounds of colour. Now he was in his element. He was a piano-tuner.

We found each other through my (partial) synaesthesia. I could enthuse about the shimmering blue-green of a high F# and he was with me, shivering in delight; or the warm bath of burnt sienna drawn from a B- he snuggled down into his overcoat; or the khaki of a D#, hesitating somewhere between the taste of golden syrup and olives, before moving on to E major juicy apple green. His gestures reflected the transition. Not that he always agreed with my audio-visual equivalents – but we had found a common language!

Just stare at the expanding blob of white in this kinetic projection. What does it sound like?
He could also hear the sway and rasping drag of my brush, making contact with or lifting off the paper, at various speeds, dancing in all directions, sometimes dry, sometimes squelchy. He sensed abstract forms beginning to emerge from my choreography. Ha! Now we had both form and colour.

Enough for his imagination to complete the work of art, even after the train had pulled into Victoria station and we had parted company. I had left him with all the elements of a continuous painting – a painting that would sing and that he could accompany at the piano.

Some years went by before I realized that this was to become a major aim in life – to make kinetic paintings with music that have no final tangible form. When they have faded to black at the end of a performance, like the music - they have gone - for ever. This ephemeral art form nevertheless retains a dynamic presence in your memory, your imagination and your soul.

I shall never forget the challenge and joy of that conversation with the blind man in the train. How satisfying it can be to open up to a stranger and discover a common language! Perhaps a useful tip for any of us today, in a world that seems to be awash with suspicion, fear and mistrust of those different from ourselves, or those with whom we don't see eye to eye.


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