Artist with synesthesia captures Greta Thunberg’s Davos speech on canvas

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When Greta Thunberg gave her “Our House is on Fire” speech in Davos in 2019, she galvanized hundreds of thousands of students to fight for the climate. The address was unique and powerful in its urgency, but what did it look like in color? What nuances, textures and forms could be attributed to her words?

An artist has tried to answer that very question, translating Thunberg’s voice into a painting that will debut at Sotheby’s next month.

Jack Coulter, who has synesthesia, a neurological condition that fuses the senses, has based his work Future Generations on a line from Thunberg’s speech that calls for safeguarding “living conditions for future generations.”

The artist, whose admirers include Paul McCartney and Anne Hathaway, has built a career putting music on canvas: he painted Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto live with the London Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and the estate of Freddie Mercury commissioned him to represent following Mr. Bad Guy. But this “was very different from anything that came before,” he said.

“There is an enormous amount of doubt and ignorance on the part of the world’s ‘leaders’ around the climate emergency,” he said. “As a young person, he feels like you’re screaming into space. I am 20 years old and terrified for my future; I can’t imagine the fears of future generations. I don’t want to look back thinking I could have done more.”

The Northern Irish artist said he was “fed up” when he started talking to Thunberg about the painting. Along with his words, he transcribed music from the British band’s 1975 adaptation of the speech, which sets up a similar essay by Thunberg in an ambient setting. “The additional musical element was an important aspect for the final image of the painting. It was inspiring, hopeful, destructive, brooding and assertive all at once,” Coulter said.

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

“Greta is the voice of our generation,” said Coulter. “[She] is independent, and I am an independent artist. It was a very organic and truthful process. We are currently facing the most important problem that humanity has ever faced; there is a deep-seated sense of fear. It feels like our actions aren’t making a difference or helping. However, that is not true at all. Together, little things can become big things. In the world of auctions, this painting is an opportunity to help”.

The artist walks a path traveled by many famous names before him: David Hockney, Vincent van Gogh and Joan Mitchell have all been linked to synesthesia and intuitively translated sensory experiences into great visual works.

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

Speaking about the artwork, Thunberg said: “Our current society is on a collision course with our life support systems. The world we thought we knew no longer exists. The 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 amounts of money. Humanity is now approaching a precipice, but it is not too late to turn around. For that to happen, we must be ready to change everything.” Coulter’s painting, he said, is intended to “raise awareness of the climate crisis.”

Lisa Stevenson, Head of Selected Sales at Sotheby’s, said: “The noise that Jack Coulter conveys through the painting is unique, and it is very exciting to see this piece at Sotheby’s less than a year after its auction debut, which saw to collectors everyone competes for their work”.

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