How to Paint with Sound

In this article, Lantern Writer-in-Residence Dominic Bellido reviews the Painting with Sound installation that took place in All in One: Selections from the Alex Katz Foundation last December, with an introduction from Colby Professor José G. Martinez on his “Soundscape and Sonic Narratives” class.

The assignment prompt was to use any of the audio editing, sampling techniques, and reflections that we had studied throughout the semester to represent with sound the artwork they had chosen. This was actually their sixth and final project in the semester and those included, radio drama, sound collage, soundscape, and soundwalk. amongst others. I asked them to investigate the artists and their work to learn more, but at some point, they needed to decide if they wanted to enhance the artist’s intention or rather explore their own personal reaction to the piece. Each person gravitated toward different elements; some took the content of the painting literally and imitated it, while others went more abstract and made unexpected connections to sometimes un/recognizable sounds. It was truly fascinating to hear what students made, especially those who had never dealt with any audio work. 

– Professor José G. Martinez

What is the museum to the man who cannot see? I think about this whenever I look at something pinned on a wall. How can the other senses—sound, smell, or taste—add to the experience of viewing art? For example, sound exists in all realms, but at the Colby Museum of Art, I usually hear nothing but the echo of my own footsteps and the hum of the air conditioner. The quietness can be nice, but sometimes, I feel that something is missing from the atmosphere. Some kind of disruption, something to shake off the dust clinging onto the frames.

When I heard about Professor José Martinez’s class, I felt like I would get an answer to my question. Not only would the galleries be full of noise for a change, but I was also interested in seeing how the students would interpret the artworks they selected to set their soundscapes to. How would they be able to think beyond what they could see? It was the kind of question a school like Colby dreams of asking but rarely does. How to pull sound out of the wall?

Peter Linde Busk, Rosebud, 2016. Ceramic, cardboard, card stock, linen, cotton duck, stage film, polyester felt, gold leaf, smalti glass, stones, plywood, 72 3/4 x 57 x 6 in. (185 x 145 x 15 cm). Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2019.466.

I observed the students—with Professor Martinez as their guide—in the museum’s All in One exhibition months before they constructed their installations. At times, they looked as though they were window-shopping—hands on chins, standing hipslung in front of the artworks, they seemed to be taking notes and picking pieces mentally. I could almost hear their imaginations working double-time, as they began to map out melodies and sonic cues.

Professor Martinez told me that many of the students had never worked with audio software before. Yet, instead of shying away from this challenge, he embraced it, using the opportunity to open the doors for the students to experiment. When asked what he wanted the class to take away from the project, he talked about the creative advantage of trying new things and pushing the boundaries of sound mixing. After my class visit, I was eager to see how the students would conduct their research. 

Joyce Pensato, Daisy, 2007. Enamel and metallic paint on linen, 90 x 72 in. (228.6 x 182.9 cm). Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2012.007.

Day by day, the semester swung by, and then it was time. In the second week of December, I attended a public reception during which guests and students could come in, close their eyes, and enjoy the soundscapes designed by MU 297B.

I was thrilled to see the range of interpretations: some students used geography to orient themselves, using the sounds of taxis and footsteps for pieces like Rudy Burckhardt’s photograph, Walking, New York. Others let color guide them with works like Joyce Pensato’s painting, Daisy, with its monochromatic distortions, or the jawbreaker-like layers of Peter Linde Busk’s sculpture, Rosebud. Students who chose the same artwork nonetheless produced impressively different soundscapes. Hearing their final products motivated me, and I thought back to all the museum artworks I’ve ever walked by without a sound. 

So I decided to make my own soundscape.

Tamara Gonzales, Untitled., 2016. Alpaca and wool, 34 x 26 1/4 x 23in. (86.4 x 66.7 x 58.4 cm). Gift of the Alex Katz Foundation, 2017.479.

For inspiration I chose Tamara Gonzales’ Untitled Alpaca wool tapestry. The piece was made in partnership between Gonzales and local weavers from Ayacucho and Pisac, Peru, where the artist often visited and worked. For this reason, I wanted to take the huayno music that my father grew up with in Ayacucho and suture it to the blue and red threads of the piece. Accompanying the sounds of women talking at sewing machines, I remixed the song “Flor de Retama” into a gospel-infused, hip-hop beat that showcases the act of passing down music through generations, surviving only through community and persistence.

In this light, Painting with Sound should be seen as a work of collaboration. Not just between music and art but also between the artists and the students, all of whom have layered their own lived experiences into the pieces they create, bringing about new kinds of artistic relationships. Through these works, we can begin to catch the voices of the galleries, giving us all a chance to hear what they—and we—have to say.