While on her two-month landscape residency in 2009 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Deb Strong Napple went out to paint the rolling hills of the Amish countryside. She set up outside of her farm and began work on her plein air painting, but something was wrong.
“I just couldn’t get it,” says Napple with a laugh as she shakes her head. “You know when you’re working on something and, for some reason, you just can’t find it? Something was different with my vision.”
Before the residency, Napple had worked as a graphic designer, had studied creative writing at Old Dominion University and printmaking and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. She had gone from hours of classes and lectures and exams to being a full-time painter at the Carlson Landscape Residency. Her sole job was to paint, and now she couldn’t. As she struggled to find inspiration, she spotted a tractor in the distance, and she realized the low hum of the tractor as it mowed deep fields of lush green was affecting her vision. Color was disrupted by sound.
“All I could hear was the noise and the hum of the tractor, and I realized I couldn’t hear the color that I was trying to paint. I realized that when I’m out painting the landscape, there comes a point when the colors actually become sounds, and I can hear them.”
Unusual though it may sound, Napple’s perceptual phenomenon is not uncommon. Psychologists and neuroscientists refer to this as synesthesia, the condition in which stimulation of one sense triggers unusual additional experiences in another. In Napple’s case: Visual perceptions affect auditory senses. For others, sounds may feel heavy or soft, or tastes may promote visions of certain colors. As a synesthetic artist who creates paintings, etchings, woodcuts and prints, the way Napple experiences sound and color morph to create abstract expressions of the natural world.
“Synesthesia is like another form of beauty that I experience when I’m in the landscape, but it was also a challenge because it was like getting another tool in my bag. I had to learn how to use that tool,” says Napple.
While working on plein air paintings and landscapes, Napple is absorbed in the land, letting sights, sounds and smells engulf her being and reveal itself in abstractions of the sunrise at the Grand Canyon or of dawn at Mount Elden. In the studio, however, Napple lets music do the talking.
“I’ll play acid jazz or jazz-fusion music, things that are arrhythmic and often atonal that just kind of wander in places. I find that inspiring,” says Napple. “[Jazz] has movement and gesture within the music, and that will affect the movement and the gestures in my paintings.”
Many artists find themselves at a young age interested in the arts, practicing their techniques and honing their skills by the time they reach high school and college. For Napple, 56, art came to her later in life.
“My parents were both working people. They both had jobs and they worked hard to provide a home for me and my sister. To them, art and music and things, they were extraneous. They were luxuries. Art just wasn’t part of our world. In a way I’m happy, because coming to art as an adult I actually have something to say.”
As a three-time cancer survivor, Napple feels the impact of the disease on her art and how she interprets the world.
“This world is a place where every morning I wake up and I’m stunned and I’m amazed by the beauty around me. Everything I see is a gift, and I want to share that beauty and the gift.”
Napple has been sharing that gift with the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper in New Jersey and the Ernest Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Recently, her art was selected for a new Art for Healing exhibit at the University Medical Center of Princeton, New Jersey which debuts in November. The exhibit will feature paintings from both New Jersey and Flagstaff, as well surrounding areas in the Southwest such as the Grand Canyon. Hospitals remain Napple’s biggest collectors because her art fits into what’s known as “evidence-based art,” or art that promotes healing. You might find evidence-based art in a hospital waiting room or exam room, nature-based art that’s abstract enough to pull the viewer in and not recognizable enough to distract.
In 2011, the Princeton Medical Center bought a 15-piece collection from Napple to be installed in its cancer center, unaware that she herself was a cancer survivor.
“It was just a thrill be able to be a part of helping people through that time,” says Napple. “I know what it’s like to sit in that exam room and wait for the doctor to come in and tell you if it’s good news or bad news. And this is something that can be a comfort and a distraction to those people while they’re waiting for that.”
As Napple looks forward to her Art for Healing exhibit in November, she continues to work and be inspired by the Southwest. Recently, she was invited to be one of the 10 artists for the Kane Ranch Artists Retreat, a program aimed at bringing attention to Grand Canyon conservation issues. Napple was also invited to be an artist-in-residence for two weeks at the Petrified Forest National Park. For now, she’s happy in her Doney Park studio where she can breathe in the sounds of the Southwest, the whispering winds, the rustling grass, the singing birds and the cackling coyotes. But wherever her art takes her, Napple hopes to share the beauty of the natural world with others.
“I love when I can share beauty with people, when somebody can look at a piece that I’ve made and tell me that it brings them joy or peace or beauty.”
You can catch a preview of the Art for Healing exhibit before it moves to New Jersey online at www.hearingcolor.com.