How exactly did the president and first lady come to own one of Britt Conley’s paintings?
Jill Biden teaches writing and English at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus. By day, Conley works as an assistant for the college’s music and fine arts departments. At a conference on campus, Biden spied Conley’s artwork and struck up a conversation about her piece on display, titled Musica.
“It depicts the concept of a musical composer having thought through their entire idea. It’s almost tangible; it’s ready to be written and just poured onto the page,” Conley explained to the first lady—her colleague, technically. The painting wasn’t a literal expression of such a moment—no human composer was depicted on the canvas—but rather an abstract amalgamation with swirls of various colors representing the emotion of such a catharsis.
Conley calls that type of experience “the Mozart moment,” because Mozart fully wrote songs in his head before transcribing them down on paper. Biden thought for a moment and then asked, “How much is it?” Next thing Conley knew, Biden was writing a check.
That piece represents Conley’s unusual niche: drawing, painting, and sculpting the music she sees.
Conley has a condition called synesthesia, in which the stimulation of one sense also stimulates another. For Conley, it means that she experiences imagery that’s tied to auditory phenomena—in other words, hearing a note or sound causes her to see a certain color or shape. The colors and shapes she sees are both translucent and muted; think of what the world looks like when you wear those red-and-blue 3D glasses at the movie theater.
“So if there was a song playing in the background, I would still see you next to me,” says Conley. “You wouldn’t be blocked.”
In November, her original artwork was displayed on a screen behind the Old Bridge Chamber Orchestra as they performed Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite Pictures at an Exhibition. Conley had created 12 original works depicting what she saw in the musical suite for a rapt audience at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.
Conley’s artwork spans all varieties of musical genres. Two of her other recent pieces depict the rock songs “Run” by Foo Fighters and “Creep” by Radiohead. Plus, she created almost 90 works for a solo exhibition inspired by Chris Ziemba’s jazz album Manhattan Lullaby.
Once, she even learned an entirely new medium for the art she’d envisioned in her mind. Upon receiving a commission with the handbell ensemble Virginia Bronze to create artwork for their music, she attended a concert of theirs and thought the bells sounded like the visual medium of glassworks. “I’d never done glass before,” she admits, so she started taking classes until she learned.
For the finished product, she placed small light diodes behind almost every inch of glass, producing an effect like sunlight streaming through a church’s stained-glass window. The works accompanied such classical pieces as Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Claude Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral.
The child of an economist father and a homemaker mother—two Americans who met studying abroad at Oxford University—Conley traces the genesis of her future career back to a moment when she was 5 years old. Sitting nearby while her mother played piano, she saw the music with her nascent synesthesia but didn’t realize how unusual that was, assuming it was normal.
Upon watching Walt Disney’s classic film Fantasia, featuring animated visualizations of several classical symphonic works, a 5-year-old Conley exclaimed, “That’s not what the music looked like!” Her mother replied, “Maybe you need to be the person who shows people what the music looked like.” That idea was cemented after attending a 1980 retrospective exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s works at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, which attracted more than 1 million visitors over several months. “That was the moment I thought, I’m going to be an artist,” Conley remembered. The museum presented all of Picasso’s works in chronological order, across his various stylistic eras, including his Blue Period, Rose Period, and Cubist Period. “It was my first true understanding of theme and variation,” she says.
Conley grew up around the greater DC area: first Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Maryland, then Arlington, Virginia, and now Lake Ridge. She cites the close proximity to some of the world’s great art museums, including several Smithsonians, as crucial to her upbringing. Many of her biggest influences were artists she first saw on exhibit there, including abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and portraitist John Singer Sargent.
If you grew up around the nation’s capital in the Reagan era—and you were one of the cool kids—you may also recognize a teenage and 20-something Conley from her time as drummer for the locally popular garage-rock band The Beatnik Flies.
“I was 15 and listening to [since-discontinued alt-rock radio station] WHFS, when one day they announced a band was auditioning for a drummer,” says Conley. She landed the spot and continued as the only woman in the otherwise-all-male band for the next 10 years, performing throughout high school and college at many of the most popular DC venues—including The 9:30 Club—for the subsequent decade. A grainy digitized YouTube video of the band performing their song “Hot to Hold” shows Conley pounding the drums hard—real hard.
She’s mostly stayed in the area ever since, earning a B.A. in fine arts from George Washington University and a Master of Arts in liberal studies from Georgetown, though she did spend a summer in the U.K. studying the history of color at University of Cambridge and interning in the photography department for The Times of London. A personal highlight from that internship: getting to photograph George Michael, then at the peak of his fame.
It was only after leaving a 16-year job as the assistant photo editor for the Life section at USA Today that Conley began reconsidering what types of art to create. “I gave up still lifes; I gave up portraits,” she says. “It was maybe the first time I thought, What do I really want to do?”
That question has led her in some bizarre directions. Take one of her upcoming projects, which might be the single most avant-garde and esoteric piece she’s ever attempted.
She wants to visualize John Cage’s 4’33”, the experimental composer’s musical “composition” consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The concept is that every performance is actually supposed to be slightly different depending on the sounds that particular audience actually hears: perhaps people shuffling in their seats, perhaps the distant hum of an air conditioner.
Some people’s response would be that this hardly qualifies as music, but Conley describes attending a performance when she was young as transformative. “You’ve got the little crumpling of the programs, there was coughing, there was a chuckle at one point,” she recalls. “That many people in a packed hall, in silence, is not silence. And what was neat was the sounds were coming from all locations, not just the stage.”
So what would this artwork be, exactly? “It would all be in grays, but in multiple tones, so from afar it would just look like a blank canvas,” Conley explains, comparing it to how the song seems like “just” silence. “But there would also be all these little subtle variations, so the closer you get, the more you realize, Oh, it’s not actually blank.”
Another current project is a series of 22 visual representations of famous symphony conductors, depicting their varying personalities and conducting styles. Working from her studio at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, she paints her brushstrokes diligently, right next to the bookcase prominently displaying Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks and a plaque reading “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”
For her work, Conley has been featured in such art magazines and publications as Studio Visit and Northern Virginia Review. But the art she’s previously published on those pages may be very different from her art moving forward. The COVID-19 pandemic, she says, changed her entire approach to her craft.
“I’m usually pretty prolific, but there was a period when I was barely coming into my studio,” Conley admits. “It made me think long and hard about life. A lot of my work had been very design-based, structural, lots of lines. My newer work is starting to incorporate more depth, surface, elements of light and dark.”
“I’m really,” she says, “at an artistic inflection point.”
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