In Part One of this essay series, I explained flow states: what they are, what hinders us from them, and my process of beginning one. For me, a flow state, or creative high, is a total abandonment of the sense of time; heightened awareness of color, texture and smell; and existing in a simple, but pure state of curiosity. It’s the place where we’re able to express the feelings, experiences, and thoughts brewing in our heads. This essay is about experiencing moving through a flow state and examining elements and environments that help us ask questions and seek answers in new ways. It’s meant to take you on a journey through a past flow state of mine, involving reading, sound, and observing—the stepping-stones to my process of making.

Heather Day's Studio in San Francisco

On a personal level, I hope by revisiting this experience, I can expand upon it. Who knows, maybe I’ll pick up where I left off. 

  • Start by listening to Bon Iver’s Blood Bank, then read the New Yorker piece on Bon Iver's New Voice and listen to 33 “GOD” from the new album. If you're craving something more visual, dive into this rare music video released by Bon Iver "Holocene". It will take you a few steps back from their recent album but it reminds me to slow down and look more. 

(Better yet, make sure you’re alone when you listen to these songs. Environment is key.)

I’ve loved Bon Iver since 2011’s “Skinny Love,” but when their new album 22, A Million, was released in September, it’s been playing nonstop in the studio. I’ve used these songs as both background noise and as harsh, loud noise, experimenting with what marks happen along the way. Some sounds are buttery soft, others are grating, but all hit emotional chords. I like that his lyrics are hard to understand, which makes the voice more of an instrument. His music is colorful to me, and it’s sparked my recent interest in the relationship between color and sound.

As a painter, I feel a little envious of musicians. They are people who can inspire profound emotion in an audience. But I try to translate the emotion I feel while listening to music onto the canvas, shifting emotional energy from one medium to another. I find painting is often about struggle and life and all the things in between we can’t say. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million isn’t necessarily happy, but I can listen to it no matter the mood I’m in. This makes me wonder if we listen to a musician’s melancholy songs because of the empathetic or relatable feelings we find. Music translates an internal feeling and puts it out into the world—like a deep breath.

Agnes Martin was an influential American painter who considered herself an abstract expressionist. If you watch this interview you’ll see the rawness of her character. I love her frankness, and how she explains that it took her 20 years to like her own work. That's so modest! There’s something about the peace or transcendence of her style that appeals to me. And I agree with her when she says that music is the highest form of art. Sound feeds my work: from walking over pine needles in a forest to listening to music in the studio or even just a podcast. But sometimes silence is the sound that affects me the most. I listen to Agnes Martin’s interview and I feel the need to translate the sounds and emotions I hear into something visual.

If you can, go visit Martin's work. She has several pieces up at SFMoMA. Today is actually the last day to see her work at the Guggenheim retrospective in NYC but I think this recent show has sparked new excitement everywhere and the paintings will be easier to find soon. 

While you're at SFMoMA, stop by the Joan Mitchell paintings. She also had an interesting relationship to music and paintings in her work. She was quoted for also saying that music is the highest form of art. 

Summer  (1964) by Agnes Martin

Summer (1964) by Agnes Martin

Untitled  (1957-58) by Joan Mitchell

Untitled (1957-58) by Joan Mitchell

To me, Joep Beving's music has the texture of butter. Listening to each clear piano key connects me to the feeling of dropping ink in water or watching pools of color moving across heavily saturated paper. I like to close my eyes and listen to his music. Sometimes my mind wanders, but usually it fills the spaces in between the notes. If you focus on solely the sense of hearing, you realize how much our brains filter out. Joap Beving’s music makes me want to better the practice of listening and explore sound more deeply.

  • Read about the piece in The New York Times, here.

Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance exhibition hit all of the sensory chords for me. His band filmed themselves singing the same line from a song, each member in a different room of a old mansion in upstate New York. The sounds overlap, as do the characters when they 'break the rules' and go into another room. The video I linked is a short excerpt that I think depicts the context of location, proximity to screens, and the relationship between the screens and what's actually happening.

I spent an hour experiencing this installment. It's so strange that it had the power to capture my attention for so long in a museum environment. Now, I’m hungry to explore repetition.

Ideas and emotions power the push and pull between creative moments in the studio whether I’m experiencing an installation, listening to music, or reading. I’m either coming down from a period of heightened creativity, searching for the next source of inspiration, or I’m accelerating into mark making, which can produce one canvas or a whole series. Following the trail of what captures and stimulates you helps curtail the hindrances and distractions that stop us from creating.

The key to begin is starting small and letting your mind explore what’s out there.

Written by Heather Day. Edited and Polished by Kate Holthouser.