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Seeing the sound

People

ARTIST ALEX GENTEMANN PAINTS THE COLORS OF MUSIC

For Alex Gentemann, a Hilton Head native and recent graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, sound is not merely heard — it is also seen.  And in an array of colors that correspond to the tonality of the sound.

“I see dark colors for the base notes, mid-range colors for the mid-tones, and for high notes like the sopranos, I practically see white,” Gentemann said.

Gentemann is among only 4 percent of the global population who has synesthesia — a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision).

It was not until recently that Gentemann realized his gift.

“Specific noises have specific colors. Ever since I was a young child, I thought this was something every person could do. But when I told my family, they said, ‘No, we don’t have that.’ I have what’s called chromatic synesthesia.”

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It was also around this same time Gentemann learned about the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. 

“I didn’t know the Governor’s School was a thing until a year before I signed up,” he said. “I heard about it briefly but wasn’t sure I wanted to do the boarding school thing.” 

Nevertheless, Gentemann’s art teacher at Hilton Head High School encouraged him to apply and then “it just clicked that this is a good thing and I should do this.”

“One problem with regular school is no matter how wonderful and dedicated the teachers are, and my teachers were wonderful and dedicated, only a few other people care about what you’re doing as much as you do which can make you sad or not feel challenged,” said Gentemann. “At the Governor’s School, I was able to have intelligent conversations about art. I was motivated to explore art and it pushed me to expand my horizons and perfect my craft.”

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Gentemann explained the friendly competition he experienced at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. 

“It was a very formative preprofessional experience and absolutely the best way I could’ve spent my last two years of high school,” he said. “It was fully immersive. During my junior year, sometimes I would be in the studio eight hours a day every day.”

Gentemann’s hard work earned him awards from the Scholastic Art Awards 2021 Southeast Region-At-Large competition and 31st Annual Upstate High School Art Exhibition at Greenville Technical College. A painting of his has become a part of the Governor's School's permanent collection.

His senior thesis also enabled him to embrace his synesthesia and establish a new artistic process.

“I like to have a battle plan before I begin my art, but I broke away from that with my synesthesia art,” said Gentemann, who would listen to orchestral music like Handel's “Messiah” and Beethoven’s “5th Symphony, 1st Movement” and open his sketchbook. 

“I would play a particular piece on loop, get fully immersed in the music, and map out the basic composition in a linear fashion with the ups and downs of notes. I would let myself be spontaneous. Next, I would use crayons and start mapping out the colors I saw, making a childish scroll that then I could translate to a more coherent expression on the canvas.”

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Before transitioning from sketchbook to canvas, Gentemann pre-mixes his colors because “trying to mix colors as you put it on the canvas is very hectic. I don’t recommend it unless you like to torture yourself.”

In the fall, Gentemann will attend the Savannah College of Art and Design to study animation and painting. He has already been commissioned to do some pieces. 

His work is on Instagram at agentemann_art. He encourages aspiring young artists to pursue their passion and “enjoy the validation of people enjoying your artwork.”