Finding Flow with Josie Lewis (Ep. 128)

You may know Josie Lewis from her huge Instagram following, her colorful, creative artmaking, and her idea that art is for everyone. In today’s episode, Josie joins Nic to discuss her artwork, her artmaking process, and her new TED Talk, and she has a little bit bigger message to share as well.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Today on Everyday Art Room, we’re going to be speaking to Josie Lewis. Josie Lewis is an artist based out of Minnesota. Her art is beautiful, bold, bright, simplistic, process-based. If you are a seventh grader you would describe it as satisfying. Josie Lewis has an amazing, amazing Instagram feed. She has a great tribe following. When you look at her artwork, you think this is gorgeous. This is beautiful. This is engaging. But Josie is going to talk about the depth in what she does. She’s going to talk to us today about flow and how mental health plays into art. I’m very excited to introduce to you Josie Lewis. This is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

All right, Josie, thank you so much for being here today.

Josie: It’s my pleasure.

Nic: Yeah. Hey, before we get going, why don’t you just introduce yourself and kind of let people know where you’re from and what you claim as your profession right now?

Josie: Yeah. Hi, my name is Josie Lewis and I live in Minnesota in St. Paul, and I’m an artist.

Nic: Perfect. I have been following you for a very long time on Instagram. You have amazing following and an amazing feed. I have been enthralled with your work for quite some time now. So I’m really excited to bring such a interesting artwork, interesting process onto Everyday Art Room. Now I recently found out that you’ve done a Ted Talk and you have kind of a message that you want to share with people.

Josie: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for all your kind words. It was great to talk to an actual human because I have a lot of people on the online space that I don’t actually get to speak to very often. That always helps to put a voice to my audience. Yeah. The story is my dad’s a painter and I grew up around art. I became an artist quite early. I elected probably in my teens that I wanted to be a visual artist. Then I went to college for art and then I went on to grad school for art and I just plugged away/ I would wait tables and do odd jobs and traveled a lot. Had a terrific young adulthood and stuck to it. Stuck to being an artist.

Josie: Then I went through grad school. I was in my late twenties, early thirties and then later in my life I met my husband and we got married and instantly got pregnant. Which of course is life changing, especially when you’re 36. Kind of a big deal. Suddenly I had an infant and that was exciting and a husband. Then we wanted to go for a second child and we descended into several years of just wrenching pregnancy loss and ended up with five miscarriages. One of them was a full term stillbirth. It was very, very difficult. There was about a two, three year stretch where I was either pregnant or recovering from a pregnancy and had a toddler, a very opinionated toddler. So I was really in it.

At the same time, I was feeling unsatisfied with my art career. I’d been plugging away for literally years and I just didn’t feel like I had an audience. I wasn’t doing anything on social media at that point besides just the average normal Facebook normal small audience type stuff, people I knew. I was just feeling like I wasn’t connecting. I was always making work. I always had a very strong studio ethic, but I wasn’t feeling like I was connecting with my people, my tribe.

So when we finally decided that it was time to stop trying to be pregnant I also around that same time, I kind of decided to stop trying to be an artist too, like a visual artist. I knew I was a creative person and I knew I was a maker, but I thought, well maybe I’ll write something. I don’t know. I’ve got this kid and I got this house and my husband had a good job fortunately. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I was trying to maintain a full time job. Some people do. They have to go through that and it’s incredibly hard.

Nic: Yeah. Oh my gosh.

Josie: Yeah. I kind of quit, but one thing that was happening… I should say, I quit as an artist. I quit trying to be pregnant and I quit as an artist. But one thing that was happening was I would get into the studio and I started making these repetitive rainbow patterns. I used the rainbow because it was like a color palette that was already set for me. So I didn’t have to think about colors and just be like, I’ll just use the spectrum. It was easier, if that makes sense to just be like, this is already set. I loved gradients and I would drop into these like altered states.

I don’t know how else to describe it, but it was like I would forget or I’d feel like myself. It was a weird paradox. I feel like myself again and then I’d also forget everything that was going on and I would just zone out while I’m painting the hexagons or painting the triangles or painting stripes. It was real simple work and it was unlike my previous work and I did not regard that painting as important for my career because I’d kind of decided I’d quit on my career.

Nic: Right. So previous to that, were you doing kind of more realistic or I mean what were you-

Josie: My career has really run the gamut of a lot of different styles. When I finished grad school, I was doing real complex. They were abstract pieces, but they were complex collages with multiple layers of resin. So, I mean, it’s not like so much of a departure, but certainly the rainbow watercolor patterns were quite a bit different than those heavy resin pieces.

Nic: Right. I’m familiar with your work, but it is bold, beautiful colors and there’s process to it. I’m sure you’re going to speak to that just a little bit.

Josie: Yeah. Well, what ended up happening is I was making these paintings and then I started filming them just because I’m curious. So I thought, what would happen if I set up a camera and just either do a stop motion or a simple video. I’m not a camera person really except for the fact that I use a camera like seven hours a day.

Nic: Every day.

Josie: But besides that, I spend a lot of time in Photoshop, but I’m not an expert. I’m just like a hack just trying to make it work. I was filming them and I had it 400 Instagram followers or something, most of whom I knew personally. I put a little a time lapse video of one of these hexagon paintings online. So it would take me a half an hour or 40 minutes to make these simple paintings. I’d shrink it down to 45 seconds. I posted it and I thought it would get 37 views like everything else that I was doing. I had just your normal Instagram where pictures of my feet on the beach and my coffee, that sort of thing. Then it went viral and it got many thousands of views. I think 20 or 30,000 views. So I thought, well that must be a fluke.

So I did it again. Same thing happened and then I just started posting those videos daily because it seemed to really-

Nic: How long ago was this?

Josie: That was the beginning of 2017. So that’s two and a half years ago about from when we’re recording now. Then it was a real rapid climb. My Instagram audience grew really fast at that point. Then now two and a half years later and two and a half years of posting a video almost daily probably six days a week, I’ve had more than a billion views and now a couple million followers on multiple channels. So things really, really bounced up. Then I decided after a while I was like, well maybe I’ll keep being an artist I guess. This isn’t what I imagined would happen, but okay. It seems all right.

Nic: In your anti-art, you found kind of a style or a calling or a… What would you call-

Josie: Well, I found my people.

Nic: Your people. You found your people.

Josie: I mean, because I found my people. I found my heart first because I needed to make that work to survive. One of the things that I also was discovering when I was getting into these altered states by this meditative practice is that I was dropping into something that’s called flow. Flow is like a real squishy word because it doesn’t sound very sciency, but there’s lots of science. There’s science around it, especially in psychology, but many, many different industries study the science of flow and it just has to do with like brain neurochemistry that changes when we’re in this optimal state of deep concentration.

We can get it a lot of different ways. You get it through downhill skiing or cooking or weeding your garden or writing or singing. I mean certainly any kind of creative thing will get you there. But there’s many, many other things depending on how we’re wired that will get us into a flow state. For me, what I discovered, I was familiar with flow because I’d been an artist my whole life and I was able to get there. I was wired that way. I trained my brain to get to that state and I liked it, but I had not needed it until I was going through all those losses.

Nic: Oh, interesting.

Josie: It became integral to the healing process of the loss.

Nic: So you were seeking it out.

Josie: Oh, yeah. I was.

Nic: Were you intentional as you were doing that? Were you like, I need to do this for me, this is part of my meditation. Were you intentional as you started this process with flow?

Josie: Yeah. I mean I felt like an addict. I felt like I had to get it just to survive because I was going through such a difficult period of change and losses.

Nic: Some losses. Yeah.

Josie: And physical difficulties and hormones. I mean it was really, really hard. When I would get into that state, it was such a change for me from my just daily grind. When I started to really dig into flow, when I found out was, if I can just dip into neuroscience for a second.

Nic: Please. Yeah, absolutely.

Josie: There’s this major important part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. Very important. We need it. It’s right up in front and it has to do with like high-level human stuff like planning and reasoning and self-awareness and complicated judgments. All sorts of things. We need it. It’s important. But also one of the things that lives in our prefrontal cortex is our inner critic. So it’s the part of us that’s being overly self-aware perhaps or overly self judgmental.

What happens during flow when we’re in the deep state of concentration is the prefrontal cortex goes dark. There’s a term for it. It’s called transient hypofrontality. What that just means is for a time transient, our prefrontal cortex frontality goes hypo, which is slow. They can map it now with all the brain imaging they can do, they can actually watch it like wink out basically when the person’s in flow doing whatever it is that they do.

What’s happening, at least for me, it’s like I tap into my intuition. I tap into spirituality in a different way. I am more conscious of different kinds of emotions. Time starts to not have the same kind of meaning. Four hours can go by in a split second because you’re just really deeply involved. Things like my physical pain even can diminish. They’ve actually in all the research, essentially your brain, it can only process so many bytes at once. So when you’re in this state of deep concentration, all of your processing power goes to whatever you’re doing, whether it’s playing basketball or knitting or whatever. So your sore leg, your brain doesn’t have extra energy for it. So it’s like you stop thinking about your headache or your sore leg or your trauma or your losses or yourself even. It’s a complete loss of ego and for me, I really that.

Nic: Well, yes.

Josie: I like to not think about myself.

Nic: Who wouldn’t?

Josie: Once in a while.

Nic: Right, right. Oh my gosh. What a discovery for yourself. But you’ve said you’ve done a lot of research beyond this, and actually it’s been proven scientifically in different ways. But just kind of supporting what you already know and are experiencing, huh?

Josie: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that I think is just the real regulatory piece of this that I think is so helpful is that one of the things that has been studied quite a bit around flow is the level of the ratio between the difficulty of the task and our skill, and then where flow will fit into there. Because if the task is too difficult, if you’re at 100% difficulty, it will be too hard and you’ll just be frustrated. If the task is 0% difficult, like watching TV or something that just doesn’t offer any challenge to you, you’ll be bored. There’s no flow. You can’t get into flow because it’s just like, here I am scrubbing my floor. There’s no challenge.

When I ask people what they think the magic percentage is of difficulty, people are like, well maybe it’s 50% or 75, like middle number, a little bit of challenge. But it turns out it’s four.

Nic: 4%.

Josie: 4%. 4% is the level of difficulty that you need to be in to get into your flow state. That always blows people’s minds because they’re like, what, four? I mean for the educators that are listening to this, I’m sure they have had this experience. That’s why you start people out with the simplest possible projects because otherwise they just get mad. Like, I don’t understand this. I don’t know what I’m doing. This is too hard and they give up. It’s great news because it doesn’t mean we have to learn how to paint the Mona Lisa at first go. We can just learn how to paint a red dot. Which is what I was doing. When I was reverting my art practice down to just painting the stripes in the rainbow, I’m sure I figured out my own target of the 4%. There must’ve been enough challenge there to get me into the flow state, but not too much that it would put more pressure on me than would get me out, that I couldn’t handle. Yep.

Nic: Oh that’s so interesting. Yeah. 4% is really kind of mind-blowing for me.

Josie: Yes. Yes.

Nic: But I think I’ve seen it in classes too. You’re absolutely right. Where the kids are doing something that is just engaging, let’s just call it engaging, and they’re not struggling. It’s just engaging. They look up at the time when I say it’s time to clean up and they’re shocked. We just came in here.

Josie: Yep. Yep. Yeah. I watch people, I do a lot of watercolor workshops and watercolor, it doesn’t work for everybody as far as getting people into flow. But it works for most people, even if they’re not painters or color people. And I’ve tested this out by just like putting all sorts of people through it. They might not ever paint with watercolors again, but I watched them painting the hexagons and I can see it. I can see them drop into it even in a room full of a dozen people around a table. It’s just like by the third hexagon, they’re in. I watched it cross over.

Nic: Are you noticing… I know that you do workshops and whatnot. Do you require or request silence?

Josie: No, I don’t find that silence is that important.

Nic: Okay.

Josie: In fact, sometimes, there’s actually a lot of research on this too, that there is, I think it’s called the…. It’s colloquially called the third space. So a lot of times I’ll listen to a podcast or audio book or something while I’m working and I find that it’s an aid to take my prefrontal cortex offline. It almost distracts that part of the brain that’s like looking for story and it just gets me there faster. I think the same thing can happen with chatter. Like if you have 12 people in a room and there’s chitchat. I think that that doesn’t necessarily distract from flow. I mean everybody has a different process. So sometimes music is nice too just to kind of add a little background that can do the same thing as a podcast.

Nic: Right. Noise basically.

Josie: Yeah.

Nic: Well that’s important too. If we are seeking a teacher to give their students this experience that it doesn’t have to be silence. It can be a regular classroom and still provide something like this. So you’ve talked about bringing this to adults. Is there ways that you would recommend or is it just… How could teachers bring this to students?

Josie: Well, I mean the way I’ve been thinking about the research and what I was thinking about when I did the Ted Talk was, I think that the flow research and the flow experience is so universal. Literally everybody has had the experience at some point. They might not do it perpetually or part of their job or even part of their daily life. But they know what it is. I’ll start talking about flow and I’ll explain it. Everybody in the audience is like, as soon as I say when you lose track of time, you forget you have to pee and you think you’re hungry and you start thinking about yourself. Then you snap out of it four hours later and everybody is like, yep, that’s happened to me. So I think it creates like a… When science kind of proves the things that we already know deep inside us like, Hey, guess what, this is real. This is real.

Furthermore, there are huge benefits to finding our flow state and staying there. At the minimal, the benefits are psychological. There’s trauma in life, some big traumas and some just normal everyday traumas. Flow can help us process through those things. Then secondarily and it’s not ranked. This is like another huge benefit of flow is that you can get better. Like if you can get addicted to doing something, if I can get into flow playing the guitar and then I get addicted to playing the guitar, it won’t take long until I’m real good at playing the guitar. That’s the way it works. In the flow state we tend to make big leaps as far as our abilities and creative insights and advancement and development.

Nic: Development and what not. Okay.

Josie: And all that stuff. Yep.

Nic: Wow. Wow. That’s so interesting. Is there any final words? I’m going to go ahead and share your contact information, your Instagram and website and whatnot. But is there any closing words you’d like to leave our audience with?

Josie: No, I mean, I just think to finish out my thought, it’s like for educators especially, if you’re bringing people into the art space maybe a few of your of your students are actually going to be artists. But all of them can benefit from understanding what flow is. I have friends that have experienced flow with small engine repair. They’re not artists. They never thought about being an artist, but they get there in other ways. It’s like when I start talking about it even with that completely disparate, like a very different experience of flow, it’s like, oh yes, the connections are there. Then I think that that would be the value, especially with the general student. I don’t know what your educators are… what they’re dealing with, but I imagine just all the people.

Nic: Yep. All the people.

Josie: All the people can benefit from flow. It’s like there’s no gender. There’s no income. There’s no skin color. It’s like it is universal and everybody can get there.

Nic: Yep. Oh, beautiful. Thank you so much, Josie, for joining us today.

Josie: Absolutely. My pleasure.

Nic: I’m a huge fan of bringing contemporary artists into my classroom. Josie Lewis is going to be a must. Not only does she have phenomenal artwork, which I know you’re going to jump on and look at the links in this podcast, as well as on Mini Matisse and see her artwork. You’re going to be floored. Gorgeous. Gorgeous, bright, bold, beautiful stuff. The process is amazing. It is absolutely captivating. Bring Josie Lewis into your classroom, not only her artwork, but also talk about the concept of flow. Talk about the message that she brought to us today, and use this as a practice in your own world. For more ideas of contemporary artists to bring into your classroom, be sure to check out the Art of Education University webpage. The magazine has tons of ideas for contemporary artists to bring into your classroom, but I would highly recommend starting with Ms. Josie Lewis. Thanks for listening today. We’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.