By Ann Orton
It’s the Autumn Equinox, when we officially move into autumn and the day is evenly split between light and dark. It feels like a timely point to share my reflections on an aspect of my summer. In early August, I took myself off to the wild and unspoilt countryside of the Welsh Borders to a stone carving course. It was an experiment: on two consecutive summers several years ago I had attended a four-day stone carving course at Chelsea College of Art next to Tate Britain, learning the basics in the original mortuary of what was the Royal Army Medical College, and commuting from home. But the course had been dropped.
My trip to Wales was planned as a complete break, an adventure, and a chance to reacquaint myself with the basic techniques I had learned at Chelsea. The welcome was wonderful, the setting glorious, the tutoring excellent, and the fellow students friendly and interesting. I went with no idea of what I might create, but a willingness to explore and an openness to the adventure. After our tutor Simon’s introduction to the setting, tools and basic techniques, our first significant task was to select a piece of stone from the field behind the barn. I confess to slight intimidation: all the pieces were significantly larger than the stones I had worked on at Chelsea. But interestingly, after walking the stone line-up a couple of times, I knew exactly the piece I wanted and what I wanted to create. And after that I was off, sketching my idea first, planning out the initial attack on the stone, and starting to carve (despite the slightly questioning approach of Simon about the level of challenge I was taking on: carving a face is notoriously difficult as you have to cut everything back to create the nose, while refraining from accidently breaking it off!).
And then I was truly ‘in flow’ – the concept researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at MIT in the 1980s, exploring the extraordinary concentration and focus achieved with the right set of conditions. It was extraordinary to be so fully immersed in the task, oblivious for long stretches of what was happening with the others, surprised at the announcements of coffee / tea and lunch breaks (how could the time have gone so quickly?), uninterested in emails and with limited curiosity about the outside world, and completely engaged in my project. After four long days of very physical work, I had a carving to be proud of and a great sense of achievement – four days of renewal and grounding and a different energy.
If you want a chance to regenerate, here’s the learning I’d share:
- step out of your usual patterns of work and social interaction into a separate place, as different as you are able
- be prepared to be on your own or alone (but not lonely) or with people you have not met before
- choose something different, challenging (though not extremely so, as this goes against the research on flow) and with a tangible end result
- find a supportive environment, particularly if you are learning something new
- pick a setting that will feed you in different ways (the drive through the countryside to my B&B was breath-taking, and I treated myself to lovely suppers)
- minimise the links to your usual environment (limit news, access to emails, work conversations)
- celebrate what you are able to achieve
All this and I’m an introvert! My intention now is consciously to continue to look for and plan ‘in flow’ activities throughout the year, rather than to wait until next summer.
Further resources: a great short read on flow is: Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997), Finding Flow, Basic Books)