Leslie Shershow is a jeweler and teacher whose projects explore themes of memory, nostalgia, longing, introspection, and the souvenir. She is currently a lecturer at San Diego State University.
In her book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart describes a secret world that reveals itself when one engages with the miniature: “This is the daydream of the microscope: the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance.”1 Small constructed worlds offer the potential for escape: they are frozen in time, separate from real life. Stewart explains that in the daydream world of the miniature, there is a finite amount of space, but an infinite amount of time.
Jewelers understand this phenomenon all too well. The OptiVISOR, akin to a horse blinder, blurs all but the task at hand as everything else slips away. The jeweler becomes absorbed by their own tiny world, where they hold complete supervision and control. Many metalsmiths live for this mental state in which they lose sense of space and time. This is flow. The term, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is described as a period of extreme concentration and absorption.
Many of us have struggled to find reprieve from a parade of anxieties, unknowns, and tragedies during the pandemic. I became interested in flow as a means of escape. For those who can attain it, the flow state appears to be a respite from difficult times. I envy makers who can reliably achieve flow in their practice, rendering them efficient or prolific. They seem to transcend existential dread and get the most out of their time.
My brain has set conditions for achieving flow-state. Flow can occur when I’ve researched my subject to confusion, overthought and scaled down to tangibility, conducted material tests, workshopped difficult decisions, and planned my piece. I must also be excited about getting to work, my studio must be clean, and the sun must be in Capricorn. I’m kidding about the last one. Though it is the most enjoyable and confident state of my practice, flow doesn’t happen often for me.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, one condition of achieving flow is attaining balance between challenge and skill.2 The task must be adequately ambitious to foster the individual’s engagement, yet not so challenging to cause frustration. To perpetuate flow, one must develop new or more challenging skills over time, finding that sweet spot just a hair beyond their proficiency. Continuously seeking small challenges improves one’s technical abilities over time. By that logic, flow is ubiquitous in the jewelry world, as there are innumerable metalwork techniques to learn and not enough time to master them all. Metalsmiths are primed to achieve flow through years of technical discipline, engaging with small details, and performing repetitive tasks.
To understand flow from a metalsmith’s perspective, I sent out a questionnaire. Of the fifty-eight metalsmiths and jewelers questioned, about 95 percent had experienced flow, with 50 percent claiming to experience it several times per week. Most respondents described it as blissfully losing track of time; a feeling of serenity, satisfaction, and renewal, just as one might characterize meditation.
“My mind is peaceful; my heart is maintaining the same pace—I don’t need to think too much about it,” says jeweler Xinia Guan. Guan, originally from Inner Mongolia, China, spoke to me from her new apartment in Chicago. Her introspective and philosophical constitution carries into her work, which is composed of intricately pierced and bent geometric patterns. Guan describes her jewelry as a recording device, first of the hundreds of hours of fabrication in each pierced line, but also of sounds, emotions, and surroundings in its sieve-like quality and reference to apertures, speakers, and mandalas. Guan agrees that balance between challenge and skill is important for productive studio time. To maintain her engagement, she continues to follow her practiced formula of intricate piercing to explore more ambitious forms and patterns over time. Flatland II, a pierced and folded donut-shape, was named after the 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott. This book is one of Guan’s main influences, and inspired her to build complex structures by experimenting with the process of moving from 2D to 3D through the construction and deconstruction of her pierced geometric patterns. “The world we can see is based on the objective existence of 3D, but the world we can imagine should be far greater than these dimensions. Time, as the fourth ruler, allows us with creative hands to widen the boundaries,” Guan says.
These surveyed artists agree that flow-state feels incredibly satisfying, both emotionally and physically. The spiritual and material rewards incentivize the maker to remain engaged, and thus motivate them to continue working.3 “It’s already in me,” says the artist Castro, who lives in Istanbul, Turkey. “When it surfaces, I’m gonna be fully into it. Most of the time I don’t think about it because it’s just there.” Castro brings his internal dream world to life through whimsical, fully articulated, and opulent gem-encrusted figures. He has come a long way from the wire-wrapped antiques of his early career. As a self-taught metalsmith, he decisively masters new skills to satisfy his ambitious ideals and visions, further perpetuating flow. Money Brooch, a catlike figure in emeralds set in 18 karat gold, exhibits Castro’s ability to fabricate with the refinement of fine jewelry without the stuffiness: cats with pierced ears and floppy legs composed of the most extravagant materials on earth.
While some artists, like me, had a laundry list of conditions for reaching their flow, such as muting distractions or cleaning their workspace, others simply stated, “I sit at my bench.” However, it can take years of cycling through work, feedback, and reward to get to that immediacy. “We have to train ourselves to get to that place,” says Jolynn Santiago, who lives and works in Baltimore. Santiago’s engaged and curious disposition is embodied within her work, and she invites her viewers to investigate the secretive and subtle details she has meticulously labored over. Testimony, which appears to be a raw silver sheet, upon closer inspection reveals miniature granules of sterling silver. These granules were created from Santiago’s meditative and formulaic process of filing, and have been comprehensively sifted and fused together. Santiago embraces imperfection in a controlled way; she explores the silver’s response to manipulation by highlighting a crack that occurred during the fabrication process. Her work is simultaneously restrained and intuitive.
Self-professed control freaks—me included—can attest that working with metal generally requires control: a steady hand, an understanding of the material, and great attention to detail. According to “EEG Correlates of the Flow State…,” flow causes increased activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and putamen.4 These parts of the brain work to provide the maker with a deeper sense of cognitive control and positive reinforcement.5 Within an increasingly turbulent reality, the work, which can be manipulated at will, feels much more comfortable.
To tap into a flow state, the task should also be pleasurable. An activity that is inherently enjoyable is considered an autotelic activity.6 My interviews with Guan, Castro, Santiago, and others suggest that process-oriented makers are more likely to achieve flow regularly. The techniques they enjoy the most are the root of their artistic practice or concept. These processes likely have autotelic significance, such as Guan’s hand piercing techniques. “Sawing is meditation for me,” she says.
Other more elusive factors, such as self-confidence, passion, and compulsion, can also be crucial in achieving an autotelic activity cadence. For some, it is not enough simply to want to do the activity; it needs to be worth doing. For Castro, self-doubt is a nonstarter. “Making is a relationship with your piece. Even if it is rocky and you messed up, you have to see the end,” he says. Each of his jewelry pieces requires a copious amount of time to create, as well as extremely expensive materials, so commitment is important.
The conception of Just Grin and Bear it is an example of Castro’s internal drive to create despite obstacles. It was completed by hand at home during pandemic lockdown. Without the tools and resources to fabricate as he normally would, he adopted an inventive approach by creating his own stone-setting tools, and shaped sewing needles by stove to achieve small facial details. “If there’s no struggle, it doesn’t always feel worth it,” Castro says.
The benefits of a flow state go beyond task completion. Scientists have found that people engaged in flow have a better capacity to evade reflexive self-consciousness and experience fewer negative emotions.7 Because tasks which induce a flow state require a high level of concentration, the mind can lose track of bodily awareness.8 Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex’s executive functions, which process the past and future, are inhibited during flow, ostensibly allowing the maker to reach a sort of mindfulness free of the insecurities and negative thoughts that can impede one’s practice.
Santiago’s performance and the object, Twenty-four hours of silence, began as “an impulse that I had, and I wanted to run with it,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t know why.” The project entailed filing a large rod of silver for twenty-four hours without eating, sleeping, talking, or any connection to the outside world. “Through hours and hours of filing I’m sitting with my thoughts, and I feel like it’s something that we don’t like to do…. It’s a process of being okay with where I am, and what I’m thinking,” she says.
Flow is not only an escape, but a commitment to what is in front of you. Through these interviews I learned that flow does not have to be a disassociation from the world, but rather a deeper connection to the material, the work, and the self. It emphasizes the journey—through process and engagement—over the outcome. It is a way to dismiss the ego and outside biases while suspending time and expectation. The practices of Castro, Guan, and Santiago are compelling examples of the journey’s significance.
What I had assumed was a magic state of spiritual enlightenment and efficiency isn’t magic at all. Flow is a result of dedicated and engaged work, an ease with oneself and with solitude, and an acceptance of the time it takes to get there.
My fear of wasting time led me to perceive flow as a quick-fix method of cheating it. Rather, it is the acceptance of time that allows one to truly be engaged in their practice. Castro, Guan, and Santiago acknowledge that the pursuit of creating something handmade is rarely practical within the terms of capitalism. Flow is a satisfying bonus to regular studio life, not a capitalist tool to increase output.
Modern society somehow both under- and overvalues our time. Social media and twenty-four-hour news cycles consume swaths of our day. Meanwhile, we are repeatedly reminded that time is money, and should not be wasted. In my practice, I have felt stuck in this conundrum.
Flow welcomes this contradiction, simultaneously suspending time and embracing its passage. It redefines efficiency as a practice in intention rather than expectation. The work can serve as a tangible souvenir of those investments, such as Guan’s piece Flow 1. “Time is just a concept,” she says, “so how we feel about it determines how it stands in our life.”
“I don’t think, as an artist, there’s ever an end,” says Castro. “We are searching for infinity.”
Though flow may be an elusive state for some, at the heart of these interviews is an emphasis on the creative practice. Process is where the art lives. Choosing to spend time on a creative task can be an act of rebellion, an assertion of one’s agency in a system based on the principles of efficiency and profit. Engagement in process reinforces a deeper connection to the self, the material, and centuries of makers before us. It’s proof that this work is valuable and craft is indeed special.
1. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives on the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 54.↩
2. Katahira Kenji, Yamazaki Yoichi, Yamaoka Chiaki, Ozaki Hiroaki, Nakagawa Sayaka, and Nagata Noriko, “EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic Task,“ Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 9 (September 2018): 2, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00300.↩
3. Ibid, 2.↩
4. Ibid, 4.↩
5. Joshua Gold and Joseph Ciorciari, “A Review on the Role of the Neuroscience of Flow States in the Modern World,” Behavioral Sciences 10, no. 9 (September 2020): 137, https://doi.org/10.3390/bs10090137↩
6. Paolo Inghilleri, Giuseppe Riva, and Eleonora Riva, eds., Enabling Positive Change: Flow and Complexity in Daily Experience (De Gruyter Open, 2015), 80.↩
7. Kenji, et al., 10.↩
8. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow, the Secret to Happiness,” filmed February 2004 at TED2004 video, 18:24, https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness.↩