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When Movement And Form Are Color

A costumer for HBO's Boardwalk Empire is inspired by his synesthesia

Jeff Wirsing

Synesthete Jeffrey Wirsing at work.

Jeffrey Wirsing and I meet through synesthesia thought leader and author Patricia Lynne Duffy, featured here previously, at a party in her Chelsea home celebrating his beautiful work in providing character and context to the costumes on the hit series Boardwalk Empire. It's wonderful meeting him this way -- synesthetes continue to form community around their trait as never before in history. Tomorrow night I'll join them for a Save Venice event on Park Avenue, which seems fitting considering his life lived in dedication to all that is beautiful. Here is our Q & A:

Please describe your synesthesia:

Boardwalk Empire Costumes

Jeffrey Wirsing, second here, created these stunning Nubian costumes for Boardwalk Empire.

I find a kind of synesthetic occurrence happening, especially in my dance costume work. When beginning to work on a new ballet, I need to see the choreography, obviously for movement, but I have always relied heavily, and needed to hear the music to get a mood and the color of the dance. Sometimes listening to the music, I get a color in my mind, but sometimes, I will be out looking at fabrics and have the music in my head, then see and recognize a color before me as the "right" color or colors for the music and the work. I tend to consider myself a "reluctant synesthete" or a "sympathetic synesthete" because I don't see bold strong colors while listening to music like David Hockney, or have a colored alphabet like many synesthetes. However, I felt I understood the phenomenon, or could relate to it when it was first described to me by Pat Duffy, the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association here in the United States, during a conversation we had on my terrace in the South of France. I have done meditative work that opens one up to see the energy colors of the chakras, so again, the concept didn't seem totally foreign to me, though I dont know if there is any relation between them. She explained that there are of course are many levels and degrees of this phenomenon, so perhaps I am not an imposter after all.

How does synesthesia affect your creativity?

Since I have had creative impulses since childhood, and the process of creating, which seems always a mystery, has always been the same for me, it is hard to know any other way of being or to separate any synesthetic influences to know if my work would be different without these influences. I cant explain how once you find yourself "in the zone", how it works, but I just "know", and have a clear vision in my head, and move directly forward to achieve it. I know when it is right,and feel settled in myself, and I know when it isn't, and keep making the changes necessary till I "feel" it is centered, or "there". When you are creating, you are often working with feelings and senses rather than intellect, and I cant explain that. I do think it helps though, to have the different senses overlapping and influencing each other to provide direction in color and shape and emotional content, giving more facets and dimension, a fuller expressivity to a costume or anything else being created.

I have always been able to see things in my head and can do a great deal of work in my head, by seeing the desired result, in planning the construction details, etc... I can have much prepared well in advance when I begin working on a project and can move forward toward a desired end much more directly and quickly. It can be very exciting and exhilarating. I learned at one point that in reading, for example, some people saw images when they read and some see only the printed word, but no picture. It takes me a longer time to read anything, because I am always visualizing everything I am reading, and sometimes stopping to survey the view. It isn't a matter of mere intellectual processing of written symbols. I had assumed that everyone could visualize like that, but know from experience that trying to explain a design that is in my head, as clear as can be, is not understood by others who can't visualize in the same way. It can be the same way even showing someone a sketch -- I can see it moving on a dancer and I can see the weight of the fabric, or feel that the slight snap of a fabric as the weight of gravity pulls it at the end of a movement, will be the right texture for the music and choreography of a piece. I know that all of this helps me in my work.

At what age did you first notice this trait? Did you speak of it then? When did you realize it was a "thing"?

Jeffrey Wirsing Costumes

Wirsing's work for Jeanne Ruddy Dance photographed by Bob Emmott.

I can't say for sure. I think I became conscious of it later in my twenties when I began working with the Martha Graham Dance Company as a costumer, and began designing costumes for some of the dancers who were choreographing or who started their own dance companies. It just seemed essential for me to hear the music, as I said before, to get a sense of the mood and color of the piece and also to help me understand what fabrics might move like the music; all in the service of accentuating and extending the motion and gesture of the choreography to heighten it's expressive impact. I never spoke about it ever, as it seemed totally natural and ordinary. I have always felt music very deeply and cant imagine life without it, but until then, I don't recall having had the occasion to call on it to help me in the realm of another of the senses. I never realized it might be a "thing" or different from anyone else's experience until I met Pat Duffy and she describes some of the "symptoms" of synesthesia and I thought perhaps I have some of the overlapping of the boundaries of the senses that she described.

How did you become a costume designer? What projects have you worked on besides Boardwalk Empire? How do you enjoy it?

I grew up in a tiny town in Michigan that had little to offer a hungry and curious young mind. My grandmother however, had a small costume rental shop in her house, and her little shop became a wonderland for me growing up. She sewed many of the costumes herself and I would watch with amazement as yards of satin took form and dimension as they turned into 18th century panniered dresses and renaissance doublets. She showed me how to use the sewing machine when I was 12, but only after I had tried to test out her machine while she was at the grocery store, and promptly broke the needle and jammed the bobbin. Rather than punish me, she showed me how to use it properly, and it is a skill that has served me ever since.

I studied fashion at FIT, and worked for Halston as a design room assistant, which is how I met Martha Graham and her company, as he supported the company and designed many of her costumes later in her life. I fled the more unpleasant realities of the fashion business, and went to Florence for several years to study the restoration of period furniture, gilding , carving, marquetry, etc...and after worked on furniture in Florence and then received a grant from Save Venice Inc. to go to Venice to work with Venetian restorers for nine months. I spent another year and a half in Palermo working on private furniture and gilded woodwork in 18th century villas. After that, I received a Fulbright scholarship to go bac to Venice to study Venetian decorative stucco work, with which I became infatuated in my European travels. I later realized that this infatuation also came from my grandmother. As well as the costume shop, she also decorated cakes for weddings and other occasions. She had books on how to make elaborate decorative borders and how to make putti and flowers and I loved looking at them. After she died and I was given those books, I realized that European decorative stucco, was actually cake decorating on ceilings to my mind!

In the end, I came back to New York and continued doing restoration work, as well as costume and textile design. A good friend who had been the costumer for the Graham company when I first got involved, went to Los Angeles and got into the film business and doing wardrobe work. She told me repeatedly that there was funny niche in film that she felt I would do well in. It has the grim title of "Ager,and Dyer", though the new emerging title is "Textile Artist". It is working with the costume designers to age the new costumes made for the principle actors, according to the description of both the writer's and the designer's vision. It also involves dyeing fabrics and making all the colors in a scene harmonize. I began knocking on doors in film and finally got my foot in the door on a Ridley Scott film called "American Gangster". I then got a job on the Will Smith movie, "I Am Legend" and then began to be noticed by designers for having an artistic hand, which came as a result of all my previous experience. I have been working for the past almost four years on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s, where I have found a great use of all my skills, in costume, in restoration , in my printed fabrics and my color sense for dying fabrics. It is a unique job in the industry as very few shows need a full time "Ager/Dyer", but also, I not only age the new period reproduction costumes and dye fabrics, I also am able to restore many of the actual 1920s costumes and accessories as well. I have also been asked to design and print fabrics for various costumes and in the opening episode of season 3, I designed and executed the decoration of some very elaborate Egyptian style costumes for a colorful party scene. So, the job is varied and involves a lot of creativity and creative problem solving.

I do enjoy my work very much, and I enjoy doing the many different things that I do, and having that kind of variety. There seems a bias these days against someone who does many things, a feeling that one should just specialized in one thing. I have many abilities, however, and like to exercise them all. I have not just dabbled in things, but have distinguished myself in each of the various fields I have pursued, and find now that each of these skills supports the other.

Do people (besides Pat Duffy) "get you" if you talk about synesthesia?

Since discovering from Pat the very concept of synesthesia, and recognizing some of the characteristics within myself, I have spoken about it to many people. Some are curious but can't relate. I am continually surprised however, at how many friends and acquaintances "do" get it and reveal synesthetic characteristics, which they too assumed everyone shared, whether it is color association with musical tone, or a color wheel for the days of the week or colored numbers etc.... I have outed at least half a dozen people on both sides of the Atlantic so far. So the phenomenon is surely even more widespread than imagined.

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