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colorful piles of string

Getting Lost in Color

... and finding your way home

QUITE A FEW YEARS BACK, my wife, Tamar Chansky Stern ’84, and I repainted our dining room ... or should I say we tried. For two weeks, we agonized over the color. It would be orange, we agreed, but which

Upon seeing the startling hue I had rolled onto the wall, Tamar, typically not prone to losing her grip, was incensed: “Is this a joke? Are you trying to make me crazy?” Behold the power of color.

Rifling through the paint chips, we found a sweeter orange, but I knew this shade would never wake me up in the morning.

After hours of debate, we came upon a solution: Use both oranges, layering a semi-opaque glaze of the second over the first. Voilà! Sumptuously appetizing, suggestive of orange peel and the Italian villa we could only imagine going to in those years of repaying student loan debt.

Sometimes, two wrong oranges make a right.


SO HOW DO WE MAKE CHOICES about color? To me, color implies motion, the tendency not to stay put: restlessness and adventure. Put a color chart in front of me and I feel like I’ve been invited to play a game in which there are no correct answers, only questions: What do we want this room, this design, this painting, this magazine to feel like when people experience it? What do we want them to take away? You have a concept—a feeling, maybe some words if you’re lucky—but what does that really look like? You get lost in this game, and you find your way out.

This game of color drags many things into it. At Swarthmore, we have the Chromatic Cabinet, an interdisciplinary, informal gathering founded by art professor Logan Grider and physics professor Tristan Smith, which meets three times a year to share perspectives on working with color.

Lured by its mysterious and mischievous name, evocative of Narnia and Dr. Caligari, I attended a meeting and was delighted to find myself in the middle of a discussion about synesthesia in poetry. French professor Jean-Vincent Blanchard led a discussion about Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” (translated by Christian Bök) in which all the vowels and their sounds have a color—mostly unappealing:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: the vowels.
I will tell thee, one day, of thy newborn portents:
A, the black velvet cuirass of flies whose essence
commingles, abuzz, around the cruellest of smells ...

I was thrilled to be back in class with a group of Swarthmoreans talking about color and poetry, in French and English. What an opportunity to catch a whiff of unsavory poetic hues, feel the shiver of refractory sounds, and as Grider says, “ask the dumb questions.”


MAYBE IT DOESN'T SURPRISE YOU that color is happening at good ol’ “staunch and gray” Swarthmore, especially if you know the splendid arboreal beauty of campus. Think of glowing vaults of yellow leaves over Crum Creek; white-, tan-, and black-mottled sycamore bark; pink-fleshed magnolia petals on the ground in April, as thick as snow; the dense green that envelops the campus in June. What’s really remarkable to me is that here the notion of “colorful” can include the thoughtful, stable, humble, well-behaved hues of gray and brown in stone just as much as all the raucous reds, purples, and yellows in the Arboretum’s collection.

And what of garnet? As the College’s print designer, I am familiar with much colorful disagreement over the true nature of our school’s color. It has many official incarnations, depending on whether it is ink on paper, pixels on your screen, dye in clothing, or paint on signs. It has changed over time. I say this lack of color consistency—a rejection of exclusion and authority—is a good thing, rooted deeply in the ideas of the women and men who founded this College.


IF YOU ASK ME what are my favorite colors, I am tempted to say none. I am a color explorer traveling under no flag … well, I do have a tendency. My eye keeps going back to blues: the midnight dusk of skies, the indigo swirled with turquoise of tropical seas, a strange flickering gleam you can sometimes see looking closely at snow, the steely blue-gray of the North Atlantic. Periwinkle. Cobalt. Azurite. Prussian.

In her compelling collection of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of “the blue of distance” and the fascination it held for lost figures, like the mystical, protoconceptual artist Yves Klein, who famously leapt “into the Void” from a second-story window and who patented a certain incarnation of ultramarine blue.

Heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and 2001 as a kid, I would fall into that blue trance, thinking of going far away and possibly never returning. As if to practice for such a major voyage, I would get lost on solitary walks in the thickets and coves beyond the backyard, but of course come home, packed with material for maps and dreams.

I also took drawing classes with an elderly painter, a group of kids sketching cows and boats in charcoal on Saturday mornings. One rainy day he asked me to do a pastel of a decoy duck he had in his studio, but in an imagined environment. Looking at my finished work, he remarked only on the water, which he described as “a strange, almost electric blue.”

That made-up blue was the beginning of my adventure in color.


NOW IT'S BLUENESS ... and redness, yellowness—all the qualities of all the colors—that keeps me up at night.

The artists who fascinate me most are those who fearlessly use color to warp, enrich, and tunnel into the primordial monolith of space, like the Exotic Birds of Frank Stella, whose restless palette teases out new surfaces that we can virtually walk through. The point of going on such walks and getting lost is always to find a new way back that shows you home in a different light.

There is the sense that many things are possible when it comes to color, and given enough time and understanding, they will all happen. The Stern household epic of many oranges continued, peacefully, with other walls, sporting peach or sunshine or adobe.


EXPLORING COLOR is a relatively safe way to get lost, a friendly terra incognita, the beginning and end of the spectrum clearly fixed, the whole thing constrained by the orderly wave nature of light. The rest is fair game for the discovery of new color pathways, by all of us.

On the following pages, get lost among the many ways Swarthmoreans live with color thrumming in their lives and work ... and find your way back—changed forever.