Artist with synesthesia brings Greta Thunberg’s Davos speech to canvas

When Greta Thunberg gave her speech “Our house is on fire” in Davos in 2019, she mobilized hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to strike for the climate. The address was unique and strong in its urgency, but how did it look in color? What hues, textures and shapes could be attributed to their words?

One artist has attempted to answer that very question by transcribing Thunberg’s voice into a painting that will debut at Sotheby’s next month.

Jack Coulter – who suffers from synesthesia, a neurological condition that mixes the senses – based his work “Future Generations” on a line in Thunberg’s speech calling for securing the “living conditions for future generations”.

The artist, whose fans include Paul McCartney and Anne Hathaway, has made a career of bringing music to the silver screen – he painted Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto live alongside the London Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall and was commissioned by the Freddie Mercury estate to that to paint Pursue Mr. Bad Guy. But that “was very different from anything before,” he said.

Related: Greta Thunberg releases a go-to-source book on the climate crisis

“There is a tremendous amount of doubt and ignorance on the part of world ‘leaders’ regarding the climate emergency,” he said. “As a young person, it feels like screaming into space. I’m in my 20’s and scared for my future; I cannot imagine the fears of future generations. I don’t want to look back and think I could have done more.”

The Northern Irish artist said he was “fed up” when he first contacted Thunberg about the painting. Alongside her words, he transcribed the music of British band The 1975’s adaptation of the speech, which sets a similar essay by Thunberg to an ambient arrangement. “The additional musical element was an important aspect of the final appearance of the painting. It was simultaneously inspirational, hopeful, destructive, melancholic and self-aware,” Coulter said.

The work will be part of Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated auction from September 7th to 13th and is estimated at up to £20,000, with proceeds going to the Greta Thunberg Foundation. It is also on display at Sotheby’s galleries on New Bond Street.

“Greta is the voice of our generation,” Coulter said. “[She] is independent and I am an independent artist. It was a very organic and honest process. We are currently facing the most important problem humanity has ever faced; There is an ingrained sense of fear. It feels like our actions don’t make a difference or help. But that’s not true at all. Together, the little things can become the big things. In the auction world, this painting is a chance to help.”

The artist follows a path trodden by many famous names before him – figures such as David Hockney, Vincent van Gogh and Joan Mitchell have all been associated with synesthesia, intuitively translating sensory experiences into magnificent visual works.

“At the core of my process, I’m responding to sound in real time,” said Coulter, whose early work was based on the timbres of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. “I try to portray exactly what I’m experiencing, whether it’s a specific hue, tone or shape. The colors that come with certain sounds are so strong.” Capturing the overall feel of a track is just as important as bringing its colors to life, he said. “I built an almost visual vocabulary to fuse painting and music.”

Thunberg said of the artwork: “Our society today is on a collision course with our life support systems. The world we thought we knew no longer exists. Present and future living conditions for life on earth as we know it are being sacrificed so that a small number of people can continue to earn unimaginable sums of money. Humanity is now approaching a chasm, but it is not too late to turn back. To do that, we have to be willing to change everything.” Coulter’s painting, she said, aims to “raise awareness of the climate crisis.”

Lisa Stevenson, Head of Curated Sales at Sotheby’s, said: “The sound Jack Coulter conveys through color is simply unique and it is very exciting to see this piece at Sotheby’s less than a year after its auction debut seen by collectors see the whole world vying for his work.”

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