Can We Build Empathy Through Art?

I'm a NYC native, but I've been exiled to NJ for the past 11 years (not literally exiled...just, you know, bored in the suburbs). I'm currently a theatre major at Northwestern, and the thing I love most about this school is the faculty and staff support. I'm also a Questbridge scholar, so NU has been the ride of a lifetime thus far. Mostly, though, I'm just very excited and grateful to have found a way to be productive and resume build during the summer while staying at home with my mom and cat.   If you're wondering whether or not to do a URG, I hope this blog will give you some insight and (hopefully??) wisdom into why or why not you should apply for a URG.*   *(Pssst: Personally, I think you should go for it! Even if you're undecided, at what other time in your life will you get paid to design your own project and research something you deeply care about? Hopefully, tons of times, but this is such a unique and awesome chance!)

What’s in a Name? Redemption.

So far my days have blended together like the colors I mix to paint with: wake up, paint while listening to music, cook, paint again, and when my recommended hours are over (or I’m just too tired to continue) I watch TV. I did a check in today with my adviser, which went well, and I finally finished the first two paintings, Blue and Apple. I decided to celebrate with a nap and some funyuns, and then I prepped the next two canvasses: The and Why.

The first two finished ones.

I was shocked when I finished the two paintings. It’s been a minute since I actually felt something was well and truly finished. It’s a blissful, surreal feeling, like the end of a 5k.

Alec put me in a bit of a worry last night. I had started texturizing the ‘p’s in apple, and I was worried I was too off the mark. But oil paint takes forever to dry, so I figured if it wasn’t accurate I could just scrape and go again. But the labor involved in that one letter was tremendous. I had an inspo picture for lichen, which Alec described as being the texture/mottling effect of the color, so I sat in front of that single letter adding paint for an hour to get the desired effect I wanted. I had to continually shape the wax I was working with to get the right texture. Plus, nature is very precise. To mimic nature, you have to understand the rules it operates by, and create accordingly. He didn’t get back to me until this morning, impressed with my accuracy, but by then I had figured he had already seen it and okayed it. He’s good like that. But still…I was worried. It’s not like I’m representing what I see here. I’m a conduit, like wire, between the canvas and his brain.

My inspo pictures for the ‘p’s in apple

My imitation of nature’s perfect mold spores.

And then, out of my Instagram post, came a miracle. My friend Ally, trusted ally and bestie, has synesthesia. Her words are colored. Bless. Just as I was looking for someone else to do this work for, she popped her head into my inbox, asking which colors I was gonna use, and how they probably weren’t going to be her colors, and in between my queries and qualifiers, unprompted, she tells me she also sees my name in pretty colors. 
Both she and Alec give me new reasons to love my name. Growing up, I was always made fun of, called Kimono, kimano, kimiko, etc.. Literally anything a kid about 12 and under could think of to demean a name they’d never heard of before. But now, as a young adult, what I used to get made fun of for makes me cool. My name is different. Therefore, I must be somehow different (read: cooler and more refreshing) than the names and people someone is normally used to. I’m an unknown. But with Ally and Alec my name is more than just exotic sounding. lt comes to life for them in a way that it never did for me. Alec see my name as this crossfade between sunset, night, and the daytime (hell, it’s the banner for this blog). And Ally sees my name as this pinkish/purple and white confection. So for the first time in my life, my name is not just weird, it’s beautiful, and I owe that to the involuntary neurological reactions that my friends’ brains have to my name. Weird? Yeah, probably. So what?

People used to say my name was this. What does my name mean for you? Hell, what does your name mean for you?

Do you know what’s in a name?

So I’m Spending My Summer Painting. What?

My first official day of trying to put in 8 hours of work on the project was June 30th, and I was exhausted after an hour and a half. It had been about 4 years since I had actually sat in one place on my own time and given focus to the part of myself that knew how to make visual art, and I’d forgotten how much concentration this kind of work took. My “studio” is a space I carved out in the living room near our patio door. I originally planned to paint outside, but a bad heat wave, coupled with some severe thunderstorms, kept me indoors my first week. Now I’m just settled there, and since I get lots of sunlight and ventilation without me or the paintings melting in the heat, I don’t foresee myself moving anytime soon.

A shot of my studio at home, and my cat, Apollo. Feel free to follow me on Instagram for daily updates.

 I had been doing video calls with Alec every few days to do some sketches of different words and the colors and textures he saw from them. (Alec is the synesthete I’m working with on this project. I’m conveying his world to other people like myself, who don’t have this condition. In many ways, I guess my success in conveying what he sees means that I am the first true test subject. Can a synesthete and non-synesthete reach a place of understanding to the point where I, the non-synesthete, can accurately communicate his experience to other people? That’s what this project is about)

In between video calls without audio, where I was looking at Alec and talking to him on the phone so we could hear each other (much love to Google Hangouts) I began to remember why working on this project felt a little like poetry. I think that what’s truly amazing about working with Alec is we end up creating these metaphors that allow me to glimpse what it’s like for him to have synesthesia. We were working on the word, “The.” Simple enough, right? A three letter word we all use at some point or another, and yet the very last letter of that word for Alec stunned me.  The “e” is a beige color for him, and very washed out, but it fades into almost nothing at the very rightmost side. While I was thinking about, “how am I going to make an ‘e’ fade into nothing?” and “What texture is that ?” I thought about the rounded shape of the letter, and how maybe I could use the moon to talk about it. I asked him, “Is the ‘e’ kind of like the moon fading into darkness? Is it a crescent? Or a half moon? Is it three quarters full?” and we were able to pin down exactly where and how the letter fades into the background.

Then, we were able to talk about the outline of the letter, “because it doesn’t just disappear entirely once it fades,” he said, “You can kinda tell it’s still there, like an outline.” So I had to change tactic about how I think about outlines. He’d already mentioned that his letters were against the black background of his mind, the kind of color you see when you close your eyes, and so I knew that in painting it, this outline wouldn’t necessarily be a shadow. So then the question becomes, what things in the real world are naturally outlined? Now, Alec said the texture of this letter was like a depression in the space around it. So, again, like the dark moon in the night sky. But then I got thinking, what about glass? What about how glass objects sometimes make things look deeper, like a shallow pool of water that looks much deeper than it actually is? And Alec agreed, so the letter became more vivid to me in a way that it wouldn’t have if I just thought about it being an “e” cut in half with clean lines. What I’m learning more than anything, is strategy. The approach to a problem is just as important as the desired end result, and to achieve the goal, a person must think just as much about what exactly will make that dream a reality.


Digression on more artistic method things: Speaking of strategy, for a hot minute after I’d started preparing my canvases, I was lost on the question of, “How do I get precise letters that will actually fit on my canvas?” I needed a stencil, but all the plastic ones I knew you could buy in an art’s supply store were too small, and not the right font. Alec’s brain defaults to Helvetica when he thinks of a letter. It’s where the most texture comes out of his letters, and so the font was something we played with during our sessions. I couldn’t use a crappy stencil if I wanted accurate sizing for my canvasses and different fonts. So, I got my laptop, brought up Google Drive, and started doing some printing. I played with font size until I was finally able to get a size that would fit on my canvases the way I wanted them, and then for the next two days I was using an X-Acto knife to stencil out my letters while my cat judgmentally stared at me for not rubbing his belly.  End of digression.

A finished stencil next to the traced canvas, plus a baggie of letters post-X-Acto knife. Letters like e, p, d, and b require saving because of the inside lines that need to be traced.


So, here I am at the middle of July 10th, and I’m finding that so far:


It is beautifully weird to set your own hours.


My paintings are starting to look like Word Art on Microsoft, but that’s because I’m not done yet.

The letters here have gotten wash treatments. I underlay different colors beneath what the real color will be so that they pop a little more, which is why the “b” is surrounded by green, but the “app” in “apple” and almost the whole of the word “blue” has gotten true color applied by now. After this I’ll paint the backgrounds black and start working on the hazes Alec sees around the letters.


There is so much fun to be taken out of figuring a problem out, not just diving right in to get the work done.


I have more to say about the specifics of those points in the coming posts, but until next time, you can follow my progress on Instagram, where I’m posting things almost daily about this project. My handle is: kimani_isaac



I’m Kimani, and my Undergraduate Research Project is based on synesthesia, a neurological condition in which some of the five senses are “cross-wired” in the brain, causing people to experience things like “tasting shapes” or “hearing color.”

For my eight weeks, I’ll be painting what a synesthetic person experiences. This will be in order to create a sense of empathy and understanding of the condition in people who do not have it.