When Movement And Form Are Color

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

Posted Oct 08, 2012

Jeff Wirsing

Synesthete Jeffrey Wirsing at work.

 Please describe your synesthesia:

Boardwalk Empire Costumes

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

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.

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?