In the flow

Ever since it arrived on the scene as part of the California Design  exhibition, I have been thinking about that happy-yellow beautifully streamlined surfboard on display in all of its full glory.

surfboard crop

Surfboard, Greg Noll, Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.

Something about feeling cooped up all the long winter makes me want to metaphorically ride a wave somewhere in the sun. Equally imprinted on my mind is an exuberant drawing of an aloe plant on hyper-growth created by Gloucester-based artist Jon Sarkin. Both of these seemingly disparate things, swirling in my mind, drive me to wonder what they could possibly have in common, if any.


Jon Sarkin. Courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the ways we engage students in the museum is having them make connections between what they see and experience here with something in their own lives. So here goes my unconventional version….

Tucked away just off main street in Gloucester one recent cold gloomy evening, I stepped into a celebration of the opening of Sarkin’s most recent work. Through the steam from the beehive of activity, the Law & Water Gallery was alive like a hothouse on display.  Drawing on the aloe plant as a driving force, Sarkin’s work pulsates with a different kind of life-force energy, at times meditatively soothing, yet tittering on the edge, his use of line and color melodically repetitive, revealing a je ne sais quoi complexity.

I leave the gallery wanting to return, wondering …Can art heal the creator/artist and in turn be healing to the viewer? Does art always need to be verbally dissected or can it just be experienced in the act of visual absorption?

I surf the net (pun not intended). Throughout the world, the aloe  plant has long been associated with the extraordinary power to heal. Known as a fierce survivor of intense climatic change and extreme conditions, aloe has the ability to heal itself. Given Sarkin’s mixed-blessings journey as an artist, Aloe be thy name, the title of the show, seems a poignant metaphor.

Like many artists, Sarkin has a particular compulsion to draw, yet his urge developed after a brain injury and is one of bittersweet necessity.

In Sarkin’s biography, published in 2011, Pulitzer award-winning author Amy Ellis Nutt outlines Sarkin’s incredible soul searching journey from “brain trauma to artistic triumph” while interweaving pivotal moments in the history of neuroscience. In her book, Shadows Bright as Glass, Nutt states that Sarkin’s brain, no longer following the visual rules for seamless perception and prioritization of processing information, “tried to assemble new stories from fractured bits of his vision that didn’t always make sense.”

shadows bright as glass

His journey into art making became a “relentless quest for the right words and pictures to unlock the secrets of how to live this strange new life.” Nutt surmises that Sarkin’s unfiltered sense of immediacy is similar to what artists like Monet were trying to capture –- to document an experience or moment as it is happening.

Sarkin describes his studio time as being “in the zone” (a creative mental state void of negative thought also known as being “in the flow”). His resulting work is a “stream of consciousness,” depicting the rollercoaster ride of his inner life. Check out Sarkin’s compelling profile, featured as part of Cape Ann TV’s Portrait Series.

Best-selling author and acclaimed journalist Steven Kotler knows firsthand how unseen opportunities can arise when hitting rock bottom. After years of suffering from Lyme disease, a friend encouraged him to try surfing — an activity that changed his life.  He became conscious of a different state of consciousness and began to question what exactly was going on in his mind while riding that wave. His drive to know why eventually led him to explore the neuroscience of the state of flow.

the rise of supermanIn his newly-released, groundbreaking book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Kotler explores the science behind what enables high performance athletes to perform and most importantly reveals how “flow” as an optimal state of consciousness can enable anyone to perform and feel their best. Check out this 60- minute discussion with Kotler on The Unmistakable Creative Podcast: Candid Conversations with Creative Entrepreneurs and Insanely Interesting People.

Kotler states that “flow massively amps up creativity” as parts of the pre-frontal cortex and deactivates one’s  “inner critic” – that governor that keeps you doubting your ideas. When turned off, we “can enable those ideas to spiral and flow.”

Photographer Chase Jarvis points out on the book’s website  how flow heightens “outside of the box” lateral thinking  — the ability the brain has of linking tangible ideas together into something new.

“When you’re in a flow state, it begets creativity, and then creativity in turn begets more flow.”

Kotler’s life-changing experience has led him to ultimately “cut out the noise” and focus on the core things in life that mean the most. Most admirably, Sarkin’s fierce determination to ride the wave of circumstance has positioned him to tap into his creative self in a refreshingly unfettered, non-judgmental way.

A recent 19-minute TED talk features Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading researcher in positive psychology who has devoted his life to studying what makes people truly happy: “When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” He is known as the architect of the notion of “flow” — the creative moment when a person is completely involved in an activity for its own sake.



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