Have you ever been so focused on a task you're doing that you lose all track of time and place? It's a concept academics call "transformative state or flow."
It's of particular use in the field of material culture, where it says something about the deep connection we have with the objects in our lives.
Material culture contributor Gianofer Fields has tried to explore that flow, but says it doesn't happen on command. But she has hope that UW-Madison professor emeritus Beverly Gordon can demonstrate it for her.
Gordon's specialty is textiles and she is also a sculptor. Her works are currently on display in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in Nancy Nicolas Hall. It’s figurative, abstract, and constructed of fabric and found natural objects, like animal bones, coconut, and shells.
"I have training as a textile artist," Gordon says. "I know how to do that so cloth is part of things and textile techniques in some cases, but it’s not that I am favoring one over another. It’s really work that is a composite of different ways of doing. Some of it’s fiber, some of it’s glue, some of it’s construction. I have to learn for every piece what to do because it’s trial and error."
At first glance, one of her sculptures looks like a duck wearing a coarsely woven coat. A closer shows the duck face is actually a deer hoof. Gordon says with these found objects, she has a vision of what she wants to do and then looks for the materials to create her vision.
"It comes through me and I put it together until it feels right and then I might look at it and allow it to tell me what it’s doing," she says, "but I don’t necessarily have that as an idea."
Using found objects, Gordon's created several masks, each one with its own expression. Their faces invite the viewer to create their own narrative. Gordon says while the objects take on a life during a state of flow, getting there isn’t always guaranteed.
"Well, I do find the flow when things are working well," she says. "I can also feel frustration when things are not going as I wish they were. But certainly, one gets in that zone and it is a transcendent, timeless kind of experience when it’s working well. And I would say that, that is not just in the making of the pieces but collecting, finding things."
Gordon says the flow takes over as she meticulously looks for found objects outside. As she washes them to use them for her artwork, the flow washes over her.
"So it’s me calming myself down, prepping," she says. "I do…try to do something to get going. When I start a work, I think it starts with me. It’s a dialogue, not a verbal one, but a dialogue with the material, so once I get going then it reinforces itself."
Gordon says for her, opening herself to a transformative state starts with a ritual. Sometimes she'll light a stick of incense or even say an invocation.
"Sometimes when I have a good day in front of me when I know that I can really, really work for a while, I’ll almost dedicate it to someone in a way that Buddhists do when they meditate," she says. "That’s not to say that it’s necessarily going to go well, but if there is some intentionality that can come back through, then I feel good about that."
That someone can get into a transformative state in different ways - walking in the woods or during meditation - is one of the reasons Fields finds the concept to be complex.
But there's another aspect to getting into the transformative state and finding flow that intrigues Fields. It’s not something achievable only by artists or fine crafts people; we all do it.
Fields says the next time you find yourself lost in whatever it is you are doing, you’re in it. That’s what she loves about material culture: It’s a field of study that celebrates our similarities rather than divide us.
Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of "It's a Material World" - that project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.