WEST ORANGE, NJ — The walls of the West Orange Public Library will be covered with the textile artwork of Geri Hahn until Dec. 31, showing the colorful patterns the artist has sewn utilizing one of her unique qualities: synesthesia.
“I ‘see’ all sound, I taste what I see if I like it, I ‘see’ time, all letters and numbers are in color and numbers 1 through 9 have gender, personality and behavior patterns,” Hahn said in an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Dec. 10.
The sensation is genetic and involuntary, and allows Hahn to experience the five senses in a completely different way than a person without synesthesia. She’s been experiencing it her whole life, but didn’t know exactly what it was until about 16 years ago.
“In 2002 the CBS morning show did a piece about it,” Hahn said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Dec. 11. “My husband said, ‘Hey, they’re talking about you!’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘You don’t see sounds?’ People who have it have a tendency to talk about the world in a different way.”
In the library show, Hahn has pieces based on music and other hearing experiences. Though she mostly makes her art based on sound, some are based on taste and patterns she encounters in her daily life. Hahn, who lives in Mountain Lakes, met Library Director Dave Cubie at the Newark Arts Walk a few years ago and the two decided to put together a solo show to close out 2018.
Hahn has always doodled and drawn, but spent her professional life as a land-use planner and environmental activist until she retired in 2011. She has since gone back to school and audited classes about music, art and French, all contributing to the work she’s doing now.
“A big influence has been music,” Hahn said. “I listen to a lot of electronic music because I can hold an image for about 20 seconds as I listen. I make sure I’m exposed to a lot of different music like avant-garde and jazz, and I got into college radio.”
Synesthesia is different, from person to person, Hahn said. Three of her six children also have it and they all experience the senses differently. For Hahn, the number eight is a lavender girl and she sees the number nine as green. The only commonality is that often synesthetes see the letter “A” as red.
The American Psychological Association says research suggests that about one in 2,000 people have synesthesia. Some experts say that one in 300 people have some form or variation of it. According to Hahn, neuroscientists have said that all newborns are synesthetes. At around the age of 5 months old, their senses start to separate from one another. But in some cases, like Hahn’s, they don’t.
“Ours do not close off,” she said. “When you touch a baby’s hand, they probably taste something. It’s like that for me too. I don’t know how normal people hear sounds. I don’t understand how you don’t taste what you see.”
She has preferences — there are sounds, tastes and colors that she likes more than others.
“I like things with rich, deep percussion,” Hahn said about the music that she likes listening to and seeing the most. “And I love trumpets and horns; there’s a silver and magenta color to them. I find piano a little more difficult and the only guitar I’ve really done has been the thinner sounding one.”
But the tastes and colors that accompany the sounds she hears don’t all lead to a piece of art. In a large, crowded place, her experience can be overwhelming.
“The human voice is complex and pretty blurry,” Hahn said. “I don’t love that sound, but I love being around people. I have a tough time in a place like Manhattan, because there’s so much going on and so many sounds. After about three hours it gets to be a little too much.”
Though the foundation of much of her artwork is based on what is surrounding her all hours of the day, Hahn does a lot of research for her artwork as well. History and genealogy research went into her textile work.
“Needlework has never really been considered a fine art,” she said. “Historically it’s been women having to sew. So I was struck by the beauty of needlework as a way to make art that isn’t just utilitarian or considered a craft.”
Hahn has a piece that will be featured in the Montclair Art Museum in February and another solo show in May at the Newark Index Art Center. In October, she’ll be heading to Moscow for an international conference of neurobiologists that will feature the art she has worked on with an animator. “The Textile Art of Geri Hahn” will be on display at the West Orange Public Library until Dec. 31.
“I simply can’t help myself,” Hahn said about her synesthesia. “So making things has been a great meditative space for me.”
Photos Courtesy of Geri Hahn