Friday 28 October 2022

The blind man on the train


The blind man on the train

Around 1973, travelling on 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, every 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?” It turned out that 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 hot and cold, our senses of space, taste and in particular, the sounds of colour. Now he was in his element. He was a piano-tuner.

We found each other through my Synesthesia and the composer Scriabin, who shared this sensation. 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 that transition. We had found a common language!

He could also "hear" the squelchy or rasping drag of my brush, making contact with or lifting off the paper at various speeds, dancing in all directions, He sensed abstract forms beginning to emerge from my choreography. Ha! Now we had both form and colour.


Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy, 
           painting on overhead projectors with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010

Several years would go by before I realised that the great passion of my life would be to draw inspiration from music to create fluid kinetic paintings that have no final tangible form. Painted on overhead projectors, 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.

 Overlapping fluid colours painted live to the chords of Cloches d'adieu... by Tristan Murail, played together with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Aldeburgh, Helsinki and Salzburg

After the train had pulled into Victoria Station and we had parted companyI hoped that perhaps been able to offer this blind man enough for his imagination to complete a work of art with all the elements of a continuous painting – a painting that would sing and that he could accompany at the piano.

Scriabin: Prometheus: The Poem of Fire
painted live with the National Orchestra of Belgium in 2013

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.
P.S. This is an amended version of my blog from 2012, prompted by the joys of this year's autumn colours.


  1. How beautiful and what a wonderful exchange!! I totally relate to the synaesthesia phenomenon. I always see shapes and colours when listening to music and also see letters and numbers as having certain colours. Maybe it runs in the family?