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Art & Liminal Experiences by Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art & Liminal Experiences by Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art & Liminal Experiences


In our most recent book, The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook and Stories of Artistic Creativity, we talk about liminal experiences.

Liminal experiences are transformative, from the Latin limen, meaning threshold or doorway.

You are stepping through a doorway from one reality to another, from the known to the unknown. Liminal experiences are key to exploring the Adjacent Possible.



Garden Gate


I felt that today, returning from the grocery store.

The Winter Solstice is now four weeks in the past, the sun’s apogee in the daytime sky is now noticeably higher, the spectrum of light is a little bit different.

The light on a certain street no longer blinds me in the afternoon but has moved northward, off to the right.

Suddenly it felt we were in a new phase of the subtle many-chaptered Winter of Northern California.

Of course this has to do with physics, the sun’s angle in the sky being higher, meaning its rays are passing through less atmosphere, differential absorption of different colors is happening, the gestalt experience suddenly feels different, even though it is a gradual process.



Newton’s prism experiment



The process of taking something gradual and making it discrete or sudden has to do with psychology and epistemology, how we categorize and label things.

Part of us wants things to fit into neat boxes, not slop over the edges or worse, be in a fluid box-less miasma. This can be both expedient and a disservice.

This reminds me of old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where Wiley E. Coyote would chase Bugs and invariably run off a cliff in the process.

He would not fall until he looked down and realized that he was in the air over an immense drop, then he would hurtle downward (accompanied by slide whistle) and make a coyote shaped hole in the ground.

This apparently had no lasting ill effects because he’d be chasing the rabbit again a minute later, perhaps using Acme Explosive Darts this time.

He had to become aware of his situation before physics was allowed to act on him, an extreme version of a liminal effect.



Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. Mesas suitable for cartoon coyotes chasing cartoon rabbits.



Liminal effects, passing from one state of being to another, can happen at many different levels, from the personal (“I had an epiphany!”), the group (Uniting behind a common political cause), or an entire society. (“We’re in a recession.”)

We as a society have been in the Age of COVID for three years now. I think we’re becoming aware that we are emerging into a different light, the colors are slightly different, the angle of the light is altered.

Of course we are reacting to a continuous process, but like our friend the coyote, it is only acting on us now. Furthermore, COVID is still around, even if we decide that it’s Age is over.




COVID virus




One of the aspects of change is discomfort. What happened? Everything’s different!  What can I trust? 

In our previous post, Art Finds A Way, we talked about good bets.

In the absence of complete information (which describes just about everything of interest) the best things to bet on are things that have been around the longest because they have had the most disruptions and survived. 

In the physical world, gravity is a good candidate. It’s kept our solar system together for billions of years.



Cast of characters of solar system, held together by gravity



In the human realm, Art is way up there.

It was there long before the written word.

Art not only survives liminal experiences, it can create them with its transformative power.


This is Art’s superpower. Use it wisely.



Oil paints



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


Take Your Art Somewhere New- Join Us In The Artist’s Journey Masterclass.

The Masterclass is open. Here’s the LINK to learn more.

Click on the arrow above to watch the video.

Learn about the Artist’s Journey Masterclass HERE.





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