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Art & Ephemerality- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art & Ephemerality- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


Art & Ephemerality


Thoughts on apple blossom time. As any long-term follower of this blog knows, we often revisit the subject of time.

If you wait long enough, spend enough time, it will come around again. After all, it’s timely.

Last week we travelled 200 miles to see a truly impressive sight, a so-called “California superbloom,” a huge profusion of flowers brought forth by a confluence of conditions that occur for a short time in the spring.

It’s an ephemeral phenomenon, hard to predict in both time and space because of variations in weather, history, soils, and seeds.

The combined effect of many influences over a wide swath of time and space must work together in the right way. The bloom may be local and transitory, but its cause is broad and deep and old.

It’s also rare. 

Rare enough that, after a slightly morbid calculation, we realized we may not have many more opportunities to see one because they can be years apart and far away.

And this is not even making allowances for climate change. 


Art Imitates Nature 


We also visited an art installation, Sensorio, by the British/Australian artist Bruce Munro, a kind of light sculpture spread over fifteen acres.

The undulating fields of soft multicolored light were clearly inspired by superblooms in the surrounding  countryside, except that the art captured the fleeting phenomena and made it more permanent and experienceable, on a schedule so to speak. 

The short-lived superbloom we saw on the Carrizo Plain and the Temblor Range is always there in a latent sort of way.

Seeds lie quiescent under the soil for years, invisible, with an abiding capacity to bloom that is only spottily exercised.

Perhaps this is one of the primary reasons that art is compelling and found across time and cultures.


Art is an enduring feature of civilizations. Memorable art captures sensations and sentiments that are otherwise hard to experience or share, like superblooms on a distant landscape.


Yesterday we contemplated the robust bloom of our old apple tree in the backyard.


Apple Tree Blossoms

Apple Tree Blossoms


We’ve planted over a dozen fruit trees over the years, but the apple tree predated us, as did an enormous fig tree that died of old age a couple of years ago, over two feet thick at the base. Even sawn into pieces it was a challenge to extract, toppling the wobbly-wheeled wheelbarrow.

The apple tree is blooming profusely this year. A cold, wet winter was just what the tree doctor ordered.



The flowers are lush and full, nary an unadorned branch. But they’re a full month late.

Sometimes it’s hard to catch the bloom, even in your own backyard.

It’s the same old apple tree as before. Why is this year so special?

This requires a bit of a detour into ecology and how living things change over time.


Gradual Versus Saltational Evolution


Evolutionary biologists have debated for almost two centuries whether evolution is gradual or “saltational.”

Saltation has nothing to do with salt, but comes from the Latin saltus, meaning jump or leap.

The idea fell out of favor when Darwin came along, as many biologists felt it was inconsistent with Darwin’s idea of variation and selection driving evolution slowly and gradually through the accumulated effects of small mutations.

Early saltationists believed that change could be sudden, even to the point of producing a different species within a single generation. 

But genes don’t live in a vacuum.

They live in organisms that interact with a surrounding environment and each other. Radical environmental changes can activate different genes, and organisms can mutate rapidly given enough external pressure. 

Different species or variations of the same species interact with each other, and previously low-profile members of the ecology can suddenly leap into the spotlight, even if each member of the ecology is itself changing slowly.

All of these phenomena look like saltationism, whether or not the organisms themselves are evolving rapidly. Hence the lively debate.

Not all genes are created equal in terms of their influence.

They’re not a commodity sold by the pound. They are networked agents, and some of them have a great deal of influence and others are bit players, just like members of a human population.


Hopeful Monsters


The biologist Richard Goldschmidt (1879-1956, a small mutation from Albert Einstein’s 1879-1955) believed that there were occasional big mutations that produced “hopeful monsters” with low probability.

Most would not thrive or even survive, but some did, and they became new species. Goldschmidt’s star has risen and fallen several times with the tides of evolutionary thought, like the flowering (or not) landscapes around us.

Do these “hopeful monsters” and saltational changes have analogues in human thought?

The idea of “memes” is based on genes, except that it has to do with patterns of behavior or communication that are heritable and communicable rather than sequences of molecules.

Social media and COVID-19 have made us all too familiar with the idea of virality, how memes and viruses can travel through an entire population despite efforts to stop them.

Since we’re obsessed with creativity, we are always looking for new insights into its process.

The advent of AI has only increased the urgency, as we wonder how much of human creativity can be made computational. We hope not all of it.

We also wonder about the limits of analogies.

Memes are defined by analogy to genes, but there isn’t anything like a physical law, a Newton’s Law of Memetics, that says they have to behave in the same way.

It’s been a useful mental exercise to draw the parallel between genes and memes, but what if it’s limiting us and we’re missing something?

Memes aren’t limited by the laws of physics in exactly the same way as genes are, so perhaps there are some key differences between the evolution of ideas and the evolution of organisms, just waiting to be discovered.


Big Ugly Monsters In Art


Nancy often talks about  “Big Ugly Monsters” in Art.

In fact she encourages her Artist’s Journey Masterclass artists to develop at least one Big Ugly Monster during the course of the 12 week intensive course.

This is where you set aside a large canvas or paper and build up a painting over time, using left over paint from your painting sessions. The key is to allow anything to happen and not judge the emerging painting.

Artist’s find this exercise powerful. Something astonishing emerges, more often than not.

And if it doesn’t, you can cut it up and explore Combinatorics and Re-Combinatorics and you’ll likely come up with something surprising

Artists in the Masterclass have taken to tagging these paintings from the Big Ugly Monster exercise with two monikers: #BUM for Big Ugly Monster and #GUM for Giant Ugly Monster.

Do they have an analogue in “hopeful monsters” in biology, big departures from the status quo out of the blue? 

When big changes come along in the form of a strange and different artwork, were they latent all along like the superbloom in Central California, or are they immediate, local, unique and very possibly unviable like Goldschmidt’s big genetic leaps?

In some sense, it doesn’t matter.

New ideas are welcome wherever they come from, but understanding the process can give one insight and patience when dealing with the uncomfortable and alienating.

And insight and patience allow one to start and keep going.


With love from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. If you’d like to explore biting into your canvas with expressive mark making, pair this reading with my self directed course: Activating The Canvas. Go HERE to find out more. 

P.P.S. Book News

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