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Abstract Painting, Fiction & The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Abstract Painting, Fiction & The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Abstract Painting, Fiction & The Adjacent Possible


Sunrise and Fog.

A couple of days ago, a fine early autumn morning, Nancy and Bruce beheld a surprising visual phenomenon. 

We saw the sun emerge from a typical morning coastal fog bank, a hazy disk.  For a few seconds, the sun was perfectly framed by power lines, three wires evenly spaced that *exactly* fit the sun between them, with the swirling fog all around.



Sun, fog and forest-not view from our house



There were several elements of chance involved here:  We were exactly the right distance and angle from the power lines to have the three lines frame and bisect the sun, and of course the timing was right and the fog cleared enough.

This reminds me of something Bruce once heard Richard Feynman say at a seminar,


If you have an infinite number of things that can happen, each of zero probability, something will happen

-Richard Feynman.


And, indeed, something seemingly very unlikely did happen. But it was unlikely for subtle reasons—where we were sitting, where we were looking, etc. In another frame of reference, it was extremely likely: 

The sun rises every day, it is often visible, and there exists an angle and distance where the geometry works from our house. What we saw was both certain and improbable. 

And how we think about it matters as well. 

We just hadn’t happened to see it before, and our sensibilities about structure and form registered something remarkable, which maybe says more about our sensibilities than what we saw itself. There might be a lot of things like that in life and we only see them occasionally, like a terse message from another reality. 

At this point, you might ask why we didn’t just include a picture of the phenomenon in the blog post.

We were being cliché Californians, taking a hot tub with our morning coffee. There are still no truly waterproof cell phones and not many cameras.

And the phenomenon was so short-lived that even 30 seconds to run dripping through the house, skidding around corners and body-checking furniture to grab a phone was long enough for it to stop.



Hot Tub


The Geometric & The Organic


There was something artistic about the experience that we had to think about for a while. 

There was geometry and structure (lines and a circle) juxtaposed with swirling amorphous fog.

Kind of like a work of abstract art with an armature of structure to anchor and contrast the dynamic element of the fog.

It was a live, ephemeral work of art.


The Spontaneous & The Considered


This belies an essential tension in art and creativity, that of structure versus randomness, the spontaneous and the considered.

Things seem to work best when there are elements of both, the comforting presence of structure and the excitement of spontaneity.

The structure is well understood, the spontaneity contains the adjacent possible. This probably says as much about how our brains work as it does about the phenomenon in question.


Writing Fiction & Creating Abstract Paintings


Nancy finds the experience of creating abstract art similar to the process of writing fiction, which she’s been doing lately (more on that to come in the future).

Nancy tends to be mostly a “Pantser” when she writes fiction, that is, it’s spontaneous and unfolding and one never knows where exactly it is going. There’s magic in spontaneity. By the way, “Pantser” comes from “Seat of the pants.”

Yet, she’s discovered the potency of developing an underlying structure, a series of plot points and overarching art of the story, for example, to scaffold the writing.

The plot points can be changed as one goes, but it creates an underlying armature to work with. Then, Nancy can let her imagination take flight and see where it goes. This is where she surprises herself, just as this same thing happens with abstract painting. This is the unknown, the adjacent possible and this is where the magic is.


The Triathlon


The topic came up again this morning.  Our town is a destination for tourists for many reasons, but today’s reason is a half-Ironman triathlon, which consists of swimming 1.2 miles in the ocean, cycling 56 miles, and running a half-marathon. (13.1 miles)

People pay large sums of money to buy equipment for this (primarily an expensive bike), travel to competitions with high entry fees, and train. This also says something about how our brains work.



Triathlon Swim Start


There is a highly developed fitness culture here, so we have encountered many people who train for triathlons, which come in a variety of distances from sprint (an hour or so) to full Ironman. (up to 14 hours)


Armchair Sociology


In our occupation as armchair sociologists, we have observed that triathlons often attract a certain type of personality, one that is besotted with structure.

They tend to run their free time like their work—“I’ve got a swim at 5 today, followed by a weight workout from 6:15 to 7, then tomorrow’s bike meets at 4:30, etc.” 

The combination of structure and competition leads to a polarity between appointments and dis-appointments.

There is a kind of self-referential aspect to triathlons, and indeed many athletic activities.

Training is very specific.  The truth of this comes out when one who is well trained for a specific event tries to do something physical but amorphous—yard work for instance.

An all-day bout of yard work for a good athlete can result in a weekend recovering in bed and gulping Ibuprofen like M&Ms.

Again, another juxtaposition of structure and amorphousness. 

We realize that this blog post may be on the random side of the order/randomness spectrum, and that is all part of exploration.

What applies to one’s art can apply in many other aspects of life because everything influences everything else. 


From our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Great news! Our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation won an Internation Book Award! The Reader’s Favorite Gold Medal Award.

Get your copy of the award winning book The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation 

It’s chock full of gorgeous paintings from twenty-five artists, along with foundational concepts to take your art to the stratosphere of WOW!





Nancy Painting on Blank Canvas





P.S.S. Leave your thoughts and comments below. We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.


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