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Visual Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016 3 years ago

Swimming Through Color: Anne Patterson portrays her reality through multisensory art

“Pathless Woods” invites viewers to experience the world through Patterson’s eyes.
by: Nick Friedman Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

There are some instances in which words simply fail. All the poetic language in the world doesn’t do a sunset justice. Just like no turn of phrase can fully describe how it feels to fall in love.

Artist Anne Patterson’s latest work, “Pathless Woods,” falls into this category. Opening Friday, Nov. 4, in the Keith D. and Linda L. Monda Gallery of Contemporary Art at The Ringling, the multimedia work is an immersive, interactive installation designed to appeal to the viewer through almost every sense.

Inside the gallery, a giant cube of gradient color hangs suspended from the ceiling, shimmering in the low light. Approaching the work reveals that it’s constructed using loads of satin ribbon — 24 miles of it, to be exact.

"Pathless Woods" is Anne Patterson's latest mixed-media, interactive installation." Photo courtesy of The Ringling.

The ribbon — nearly a marathon’s worth — is cut into 15-foot strips, arranged by color and draped to the floor from ropes diagonally strung overhead. Viewers can stand on the periphery or venture in to walk through the mazelike, iridescent installation.

“It’s something that’s really tough to describe without seeing,” says Patterson. “It’s like swimming through color.”

Adding to the experience, artist Adam Larsen projects scenes from nature across the ribbons, which split and obscure the light and images uniformly. Music plays in the background and Beau Rhee injects forest-like scents into the gallery.

Projections on the satin ribbon give the simplistic medium a surreal, electric feel.

It’s sensory overload. But it’s also Patterson’s attempt to portray her reality in a tangible way, through art.

Patterson has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that blends the senses, causing one sensory stimulus to trigger another. Some synesthetes experience letters or numbers as colors. Others might associate sound with touch. For Patterson, music — especially classical music — elicits color.

“Some music just sounds blue,” she says. “Or green. I’ll see shapes and directionality. Some pieces feel round; others feel angular. My art is a response to that, and I try to capture that experience in a way.”


From beyond the gallery doors, “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” by Michael Gandolfi can be heard echoing off the museum walls.

It’s the song Patterson listened to while creating “Pathless Woods,” and it has become part of the installation.

The piece, she says, isn’t an exact replica of what she experiences when listening to music. To her, in fact, the song sounded almost entirely blue. But to give people a more immersive experience, she expanded the color palette and range of senses.

Anne Patterson has synesthesia, which results in her seeing color when she hears music. “Pathless Woods” attempts to re-create the experience.

She’s standing where the blue and purple ribbons fade into red ones, following one of the satin strips up toward the ceiling with her fingers. This, she says, is the emotional heart of the work. To her, the cooler shades are more somber, while the reds are warmer and more comforting.

“It’s meant to be an experience,” she says. “You can approach it from any angle, but as you’re walking through, the color scheme is changing as you find your way, and it evokes different emotions.”

"Graced With Light," installed in the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, was Patterson's first foray into synesthetic art. Courtesy photo.

She’s done similar installations previously. Her 2013 project, “Graced With Light,” which she installed in the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, marked her first true foray into exploring synesthesia through art.

Unlike “Pathless Woods,” however, the ribbons were suspended 16 feet above the ground, where patrons would stand beneath it, gazing skyward, evocative of the cathedral setting.

When she came to The Ringling to begin working, she knew she wanted to approach this installation differently to best fit the smaller space. The idea started with the desire to create a levitating cube of color that could be experienced from afar or within.

“The gallery space definitely informed the work,” she says. “I decided to bring the ribbons all the way to the floor, to allow people to interact with it. To maneuver through it, you have to use your hands and wade through the ribbon. It really is like swimming through a sea of color.”


The daughter of sculptor and painter Anne Mimi Sammis, Patterson grew up surrounded by art. She’s painted since childhood, but her professional career began as a student torn between architecture and set design.

“I chose set design,” she says. “It had all the aspects I liked about architecture and none of the parts I didn’t. It was much more abstract.”

She began to design sets for theaters in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, as well as creating visual accompaniments for the San Francisco Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She found that using color and visual components to make music more expressive came naturally.

Patterson worked with volunteers to cut more than 24 miles of satin ribbon for her installation. Photo courtesy of The Ringling.

It’s also what led her to discover her synesthesia.

In 1993, she designed her first opera, “The Barber of Seville,” at the Aspen Music Festival. Listening to the music on a nearly constant basis, she discovered something new.

Patterson enjoys satin ribbon for its simplicity. Photo courtesy of The Ringling.

“Right away, I was seeing colors — oranges and reds and magentas,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone at first. I thought it was kind of strange. But it kept happening more and more. I remember later, with the Atlanta symphony, thinking, ‘This music is round. We need to incorporate that into the set design.’”

When creating “Pathless Woods,” Patterson says she also drew inspiration from lines in a Lord Byron Poem:

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society where none intrudes,

By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more,

From these our interviews, in which I steal

From all I may be, or have been before,

To mingle with the Universe, and feel

What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

It’s a sentiment Patterson hopes to convey in her installation. And walking through the dangling ribbons, the parallel is evident. Unable to see more than a few inches ahead, the art becomes disorienting — like being lost in the woods.

But for Patterson, that’s not a bad thing.

"Pathless Woods" is Anne Patterson's latest mixed-media, interactive installation."

“Everyone’s had that experience of realizing you’re a little bit lost,” she says. “It’s scary, but it’s beautiful. There’s adventure in making your own path and a sense of wonder that comes with losing yourself — even for just a little while. I hope people experience that.”

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