When I was four, I would color the bricks of our fireplace and ledge (which my father had beautifully built by hand and which took up an entire 24 foot wall) with my favorite colors: red and purple. My parents could never catch me. They knew it was me and I knew they knew it was me. I left clues. I colored most of the rocks in our backyard, and even the tree bark. I made marks on every clean sheet of paper in the house.
I never had an art class growing up. I desperately wanted to make things, so I began sewing crazy quilts at four or five…especially when I’d visit Granny and Papa in Tomahawk, Arkansas. Granny made quilts from the clothes she and her family had worn. She adorned every bed with her quilts. She kept her family warm with her quilts. She lived with her art.
As a child, I’d stare for hours at reproductions of Rembrandt’s Young Woman With A Broom and Man With A Gold Helmet that hung in my home. I’d study from every angle the sculpture of a warrior that stood in the living room. I’d pull out a ‘Paint By Numbers’ set, transfixed by the smell of oil paint and turpentine and the magic of the emerging picture.
The recurring concern for my parents when I grew up was that I would never be practical. The deeper truth was that I was dreaming of a life that didn’t yet exist but that I believed was possible.
In seventh grade, I announced to my mother that I was going to be a psychiatrist. Years later, I became a physician and at 25 accepted a residency in radiology at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Radiology was very visual, reading shadows on films and recognizing patterns, but it felt too logical and linear.
Returning to the Bay Area, I was invited to a poetry reading and tea ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. Something about that stormy night in the tea house was transformative. I realized that I was missing art and beauty. I needed more than medicine in my life.
I shifted course. I called up Stanford and got a position in psychiatry, at which point my mother reminded me of my 13 year old proclamation that I’d be a psychiatrist. Only then did I remember!
For me, psychiatry is relational, intuitive, and creative. The nuances, the unknown are similar to painting. It’s the only part of medicine I can live with. Choosing psychiatry was an act of coming back to my own self. Most of my work in psychotherapy is exploring the mysterious, unknown parts of the self. In this work, I realized that un-lived, orphaned off parts of myself had been patiently waiting to be rediscovered.
I am reminded of Camus’ words:
A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover
Through the detours of art or love or passionate work
Those one or two images in the presence of which
His heart first opened.
At 36, I was brought to tears when I finally saw original Rembrandt drawings while on a painting trip in southern France. Reaching across four centuries, I felt the aliveness and meaning of Rembrandt’s work.
I found my way back to my art. Back to making things, making marks, making colors. Back to investigating the unknown, ineffable aspects of myself and others. My parents no longer worry about my dreaminess. When I left radiology, John Shillito, MD, the eminence grise of neurosurgery at the Brigham said: ‘you went from shadows to nuances’. My reply now is: I’ve come full circle, back to shadows again, back to my art. I’ve come home.
The Artist’s Journey®
I’ve led experimental painting workshops at Stanford Sierra Camp since 2011 exploring the expressive language of mark making, automatic drawing and intuitive painting.
In my first offering The Artist’s Journey: 3 Secrets of the Masters online course my goal is to teach you 3 concepts that make 90% of the difference in a painting so that you can consistently and confidently create work that is authentic, mysterious, and alive.
The Artist’s Journey Psychotherapy Program: Psychological treatment and counseling for artists
In this program, I work individually with artists in psychotherapy to overcome creative blocks and uncover the unconscious reasons, the sources of fear, that stop them in their creative work. In 1999 I created and hosted a television program Creativity & Consciousness where I interviewed artists about the creative process. We explored the inner landscape, the interior psychology, the mindset that affects creativity and the psychological and mental blocks that stop artists from creating their deepest work.
Nancy is featured in the New York Observer (Should Artists Fear Therapy?) about my work counseling artists, as well a in The Registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (The Artist and Psychiatrist: Interview with Dr. Nancy Hillis) and the Stanford magazine Bench & Bedside (Art and Soul: Medicine Meets Creative Expression).
To learn more about my psychotherapy program for artists,