When you’re in there, you know it. Or at least afterwards you’ll realize you were there. I’m talking about being in the zone, in the groove, in the pocket. Artists and athletes know what this is. It’s when, as if the stars are aligned and in your favor, everything’s going your way.
That’s pretty much the idea behind “Push & Flow,” based upon the concept of “Flow” as propagated by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a specialist (what the rest of us call a Mr.-Know-It-All) in the field of Positive Psychology. Curators Megumi Sando Moisen and Heather Anacker have formed an exhibition around Dr. C’s investigation, and it opens tomorrow (Friday) at the Creative Arts Center in Manhattan Beach.
To explore and illustrate how “Flow” operates in and influences the creative process, Moisen and Anacker invited six artists in various media to show their work and, in interviews available at the gallery, to reflect on what moves and inspires them. These artists include Peggy Zask, Ian Pines, Esmeralda Montes, Dawn Ertl, Nancy Voegeli-Curran, and Elizabeth Casuga.
The power of art
The idea for an exhibition based around “Flow” (but not Flo and Eddie) goes back to a conference on the arts and healing that Moisen and Anacker attended at UCLA. The focus was on the therapeutic benefits of art, and Dr. C’s ideas were at the heart of it.
“The ‘flow’ experience is actually an optimal experience in your life,” says Moisen, “that will give you hope and positive feelings about yourself.”
“It’s that sort of feeling,” Anacker says, “when somebody’s working and time collapses on itself and they’re just completely focused on what they’re doing and not even aware that they’re hungry, that they’re thirsty, or that they’ve been working for maybe ten hours. It’s when people are definitely in that space or being in the zone and it’s just them and what they’re doing.” And while they’re in there, nothing else matters – and one hopes nothing else intrudes.
How it works
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has identified several key aspects or characteristics of “flow,” which make the artistic experience more enjoyable, or at least more bearable.
1) There are clear goals and direct or immediate feedback (although most artists don’t know what the heck’s gonna turn out when they start mixing their paints). 2) There is a balance between challenges and skills or ability level (listen, kid, don’t get in over your head). 3) Action and awareness are merged (but we all know what happened to Jackson Pollock). 4) Distractions are excluded from consciousness and the individual experiences intense concentration (increasingly difficult because all of us have to check e-mail and Facebook 20 or 30 times a day). 5) There is no worry of failure, and self-consciousness disappears (only to rear its ugly head when you look at what you’ve done the next day). 6) The sense of time becomes distorted (little Henry’s piano lesson finished half an hour ago and you forgot to go pick him up). 7) The activity becomes an end in itself, and the task is intrinsically rewarding (this consoles you when you realize that making art won’t pay the bills).
Okay, the comments in parentheses are mine. I hope you know that.
Moisen and Anacker conducted in-depth interviews, asking each artist to expound on their optimal experiences when actively engaged with their work.
“They all acknowledged that their art-making does make their life better,” Anacker says. “That’s one of the reasons why they do it. When you make art you’re enriching the world but you’re also being enriched through that process.”
When Dawn Ertl was asked how heightened creative experiences have affected her work she replied that “they give me something to look forward to, and they create balance in my life. They help me remember why I need to make work.”
Asked pretty much the same question, Elizabeth Casuga responded that her heightened creative experiences gave her “a lot of confidence.”
The cosmic gush
“Many of the artists say that they use their art as stress management,” Moisen says, suggesting that meaningful engagement with art can relieve stress or anxiety by – momentarily, at least – taking one’s mind off of such problems.
“I think ‘flow’ can be experienced in any activity,” Anacker says. “A couple of the artists mentioned that their art-making helps them have a greater appreciation for the world.”
She’s referring to that sense of heightened awareness and perhaps sensibility towards things that the ordinary person may not notice.
Moisen agrees, and says that artists then become mindful of their environment, perhaps because “being in the zone” has briefly connected them with it.
Of course, getting into the flow is not always so simple. There are obstacles or problems that lead to frustration, a sudden impasse. “But once I solve the question then I’m in the flow,” says Nancy Voegeli-Curran, “and I just kind of have it.”
When Peggy Zask was asked how often she experiences flow in her work she answered, “All the time. As soon as I sit down with an art piece, it just starts.”
For Elizabeth Montes, the act of creating is both liberating and restrictive, but her work emerges from and finds its shape as a result of these forces or parameters. In every case, though, when these artists find their rhythm and their work is humming along, wonderful results come forth. What kind of results? We’ll see some of them when we visit the gallery this weekend.
Push & Flow opens tomorrow at the Creative Arts Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., MB. If you wish to hear the artists discuss their work, come at 6 p.m. This is followed by the opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. A lecture by Vanessa Kettering, entitled “Optimal Experience: How ‘Flow’ Facilitates Creativity & Well-Being,” is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5. Gallery hours, Tuesday and Thursday, 2 to 6 p.m.; Wednesday, 4 to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Closes Oct. 10. Call (310) 802-5440 or go to citymb.info. ER