Spread the love


Creativity & Stepping Into The Unknown

In these times of uncertainty, art lights the way.

I was honored to be interviewed by Rachel Rose of The Artful Soul series where we talked about creativity and the Unknown. Rachel has an entire series of lectures on art and healing.


Stepping Into The Unknown-Nancy Hillis-Rachel Rose Interview

Stepping Into The Unknown-Nancy Hillis-Rachel Rose Interview



We’re continually evolving as artists, creators and people.

Part of this is allowing the new, uncomfortable, awkward, unfamiliar, the “ugly”, the Unknown….to emerge and to give it space to breathe, to be, to live.

New forms, new experiences arise at the boundary of the known and the unknown.


The Adjacent Possible


As you take a step, as you make a move, you open up possibilities, The Adjacent Possible, that were invisible before. Indeed, your actions create the next possibility.

Each step illuminates a number of possible paths forward that were not only invisible before, but didn’t EXIST before because your action changes the environment you’re in.

It’s co-evolution.

In Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, quantum mechanics tells us that the act of observing something changes what is observed.

Whereas, with The Adjacent Possible, your act of creating affects existence itself.

May you step into the Unknown, into The Adjacent Possible in your art and life.

To read more on The Adjacent Possible, see my previous posts on this topic:

The Artist’s Journey: The Adjacent Possible

The Artist’s Journey, Creativity & The Adjacent Possible

The Adjacent Possible: Making Room For Surprise 


Or, get my best-selling books:

The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity

The Adjacent Possible: Evolve Your Art From Blank Canvas To Prolific Artist

The Artist's Journey & The Adjacent Possible books

The Artist’s Journey & The Adjacent Possible books


00:00:14 Hi, everyone. Welcome. I’m Rachel Rose from Workshop Muse. And this is our next installment of The Artful Soul inspiration and big ideas for healing, reflection and learning through the arts. The Artful Soul was totally born out of my desire to connect with people who I see working on the other side of the arts, working on the side of the earth’s that I care deeply and passionate about people that want us to go deeper and the arts bring us full circle to show up. And I am so excited today because I’m talking to Dr Nancy Hillis.

00:00:14 Hi, everyone. Welcome. I’m Rachel Rose from Workshop Muse. And this is our next installment of The Artful Soul inspiration and big ideas for healing, reflection and learning through the arts. The Artful Soul was totally born out of my desire to connect with people who I see working on the other side of the arts, working on the side of the earth’s that I care deeply and passionate about people that want us to go deeper and the arts bring us full circle to show up. And I am so excited today because I’m talking to Dr Nancy Hillis.

00:00:51 Nancy, when I mailed you I said I’m doing this secret hurray dance in the background because Yay! we’re talking to you, which is so wonderful, so welcome, Nancy.

00:00:59 Thank you so much. Rachel. I was so excited when you reached out to me. And I just love the idea of having these immediate kinds of ad hoc conversations, and just let’s see where it goes.

00:01:12 Yeah, Nancy and I were just saying before we turned around, we’re going to trust the process,

00:01:18 and we’re gonna role model that because we have nothing planned, and we’re just going to see what happens with our conversation.

00:01:24 So before we get too far, though, Nancy, I do want to introduce you formally for people who don’t know you.

00:01:29 So this is Dr Nancy Hillis, and she’s an abstract artist, which we can see one of her beautiful pieces in the background. And she’s an author, and she’s a Stanford trained, existential psychiatrist. The work of her life is to guide artists and creatives to believe in themselves.

00:01:45 She fosters the creative process and gives artists and creatives the psychological tools to nourish their creativity.

00:01:52 Wow. Love that love, love the fusion of your training and your background in your purpose. What greater thing could we want to do with our lives? Hey?

00:01:59 Yeah, well, I’ve been fascinated with creativity my whole life. And somehow it kind of came together with art and psychiatry, just, you know, looking at What is it about? And to me, it’s really about stepping into the unknown.

00:02:18 That is really what excites me about working on an abstract painting or giving a workshop or sitting in session with someone in psychotherapy is allowing yourself to show up, not know what’s going to happen and then be surprised by what bubbles up

00:02:37 Right. Kind of like. What we’re doing is in a really safe way here, right? Not planning stepping into the unknown. And so when I asked Nancy what she wanted to talk about, that’s what you wanted to talk about,

00:02:48 is stepping into the unknown. And I can see how in your psychotherapy practice that you probably were encountering that all the time. People feeling scared and showing up and kind of not not knowing what’s gonna happen in that trepidation. Hey?

00:03:02 Yes, because oftentimes what would happen is someone would show up and say, You know, I didn’t I was driving over here, and I wasn’t. I don’t have a list of what I’m going to talk about. I didn’t even think about it or, you know, I’m so busy or whatever.

00:03:16 And I’ve often said, Great, because actually, this is fantastic for you not to know what you’re going to talk about, because then we could just see what shows up for you today, You know, oftentimes that’s where the meaty juicy really kind of wondrous material is

00:03:35 Yeah, And I think I heard you say too like we used, like, similar metaphor where it’s like whatever needs to bubble up will bubble up. And so for me, sometimes when I go into, like, an open ended process like that,

00:03:47 like sometimes you’ve got some structure and you’re gonna go people in a direction or you maybe have an intention that you want. But then we’ll kind of be blindsided and something else will pop up. And I’ll have people be like, Oh, Rachel, I know you didn’t want, You know, we’re supposed to be exploring this and this happened and I’m like, No, that’s the bubble that needed to burst for you, right? It’s all kind of sitting there. Whatever needs to pop for you today is gonna pop for you.00:04:08 And we have to honor that, right?

00:04:11 That’s right. And it’s often, you know, if you, I mean everyone’s had this experience, where you’re going on a walk or you’re in the shower, you’re driving and something comes through when you’re not trying to make it come through, when you’re not strategizing around it. And yes, you may have like one little nugget, one little kernel of idea of something you’re thinking about. But then something else comes in from the other area that just completely surprises you,

00:04:42 Right. And so that’s the abstract piece for you, right? Like with your beautiful abstract pieces, right? So do you go in with, like, a nugget or an idea?

00:04:51 So it varies, like so sometimes there will be a nugget or a constraint. The constraint might be Maybe I dreamed about continuous line and I was like, Oh, I want to explore continuous line but I don’t know where it’s gonna go. And so then you kind of work in a series and then allow each pace to talk to the other.

00:05:13 And there’s this concept called the adjacent possible that came out of evolutionary biology. And it’s kind of like the idea that you take one step and then that step opens up the next step and the next possibility and the next possibility. But you don’t know what that is ahead of time, right? And so yeah, so it’s like there might be a little bit of a constraint. I’m gonna just d’oh white painting or that kind of thing. And then the constraint, however, opens up infinite possibilities.

00:05:45 Yeah, and I was picturing like a little like you’re like a little chain that you’re building kind of as you go, right, we’re like, one piece and then the next piece and then the next piece. And what what came to mind, too, is like like in my own creative practice. That’s what I think about too is, like or your life, which I don’t know how we can see those two as separate, but But, like, you know, you make a decision in your life you’re like,

00:06:08 Is this the right decision? Should I do this? Should I go here? You know, I want to do this and you start, But you have no idea where those are gonna lead, Right? And so So the thing that I think it’s so beautiful about what you’re doing or exploring is like how I mean, I always talk about how you you’re building a muscle in your creative practice, that then you’re using in your real life, right? And it’s like, that’s the test ground, right?

00:06:30 This So you’re going to that scary blank canvas and you’re like, I’m gonna start with the first thing and I’m gonna see what the second thing is, right? And then when you’re in a real life and you’re like, I don’t know what’s happening, then you can remind us you’ve got a muscle somewhere tweaking. That’s like, Hold on,

00:06:45 we’ve done this before And it turned out magic, right? 00:06:50 Yeah, and I really see I talk about painting is a mirror where art is a mirror.

00:06:55 It mirrors our lives it mirrors our state. It’s a back and forth conversation that we bring into our lives and back into our art back and forth in this dance.

00:07:08 And I love what you said there about, you know, kind of like you face that blank canvas,

00:07:14 and you’re you’re kind of allowing yourself to take the next step and the next step and the next step and not knowing where it’s going to go.

00:07:21 And yet you bring that into your life.

00:07:24 Yeah, and I think too It’s like I always have to be careful.

00:07:27 I may be. You are used to talking about this too what it’s like. It’s like there’s nothing wrong with,

00:07:32 like sitting down with the intention to like, sketch something lifelike, right? Or like a like a flower or building a skill around it too, right?.

00:07:40 But I think that there’s like an edge all the time, where there needs to be like what you’re talking about.

00:07:45 Stepping into the unknown like the surrender piece, right where? Where because otherwise we get stuck and we don’t.

00:07:52 We don’t even see what’s Step 2,3,4 and five can be, right? Do you find people get stuck there?

00:07:57 Yes, yes, right and I’ve done representational drawing and painting and, you know00:08:04 Yeah. When you’re saying that I think that even as we’re developing that skill, we want to allow for the magical to come through for something new to emerge.

00:08:15 Um and that’s where I think if we’re repeating ourselves, oftentimes that can happen because we had a really great drawing or painting,

00:08:25 and we want to keep creating these great drawings and paintings. Um, and then you kind of get stuck on kind of repeating that cycle,

00:08:34 and I think that we need to keep inviting the unknown in and allowing for, you know, that ugly drawing or ugly painting because That’s the nascent embryonic forms of new work that’s trying to emerge,00:

08:49 and you might love that ugly painting down the road or you might not. But I think it’s really vital to,

00:08:57 in this process of continually evolving as an artist.

00:09:01 Yeah, anything, too. It’s like It’s like there’s almost like I want to see,

00:09:05 like arrogance. But it’s like sometimes it’s because when you’re talking about something coming through you, right, like I mean,

00:09:11 that’s the soul side of things, right? It is. It’s like we’re, We’re cooking a pretty big stew here,

00:09:16 and I don’t even know all the ingredients involved, right, like there’s so much that we don’t understand.

00:09:22 And we all know when you just talked about something breaking through, coming through, it’s like, Well,

00:09:26 where is that even coming from? Right? We don’t even know, and then it comes through, and so then and so right.

00:09:33 But if we’re if we’re holding on too tight. I used to have a friend who used to tell me when we were working together,

00:09:39 He said he’s used. I live in Canada, right? So he’s using a hockey metaphor. And you’d say,

00:09:43 Rachel, you’re gripping the stick too hard. You’re gripping the stick. You need a lesson. No,

00:09:47 it’s like I think about how many of us are gripping our paintbrush too hurt or a pencil too hard.

00:09:52 And we can’t just like let mistakes happen and or let or not mistakes But just let it go,

00:09:58 right? Just let it go.

00:09:59 Yeah, well, this so interesting when you’re saying about the hockey stick because I also play cello and my teacher would say you’re gripping the bow too tightly.

00:10:07 You know, it’s like trying too hard We’re trying too hard and and and really, I believe that the magic happens when you when you get out of the way.

00:10:17 Yeah.

00:10:17 You allow, you know it also, this kind of reminds me in a way of childbirth of like,

00:10:23 getting out of the way and allowing this process to come through you.

00:10:29 Actually, it’s funny you say that because I just was connecting with a student in one of my classes and we were talking about how I said,

00:10:36 Like, I used, like, the metaphor of, like a midwife, right? I was talking about how she needs support.

00:10:40 I was like, You need like a midwife to help birth this This work Bring it into the world with gentle,

00:10:47 loving hands Give it time, be with the pain of it, Be with the uncertainty of it like you and she and was so funny she emailed me back and she was like,

00:10:55 Oh, my God. My daughter just finished her training being a midwife, and she’s the most compassionate person.

00:11:01 I know. Of course, she’s the person who needs to support me, right? And I was like,

00:11:04 Yes, right. Like it was such a like I was using it as a metaphor, but she was like,

00:11:08 I do actually no midwife who could probably like birth these creations for me and hold my hand through the process,

00:11:15 right?

00:11:16 Yeah, Yeah, it’s like it came through, you had no idea that that was gonna be so meaningful for her.

00:11:24 You know that imagery and that idea.

00:11:27 Great, right? But the coming through piece right is like like so I’m just gonna put myself in the in the seat of people because there’s gonna be a lot of people who are listening to this conversation,

00:11:36 and they’re going to say: What am I supposed to do if I’m not supposed to try hard, right?

00:11:42 Like, I don’t know how to do anything but try. Right? So, like, what? What support do you offer?

00:11:47 People who are you don’t know how to not try.

00:11:49 Yeah. And that’s a good one.

00:11:51 I get that because I’m one of those persons who is very used to trying hard, you know, and stuff,

00:11:57 right? So yeah, and that is at first challenging. But I think my approach is is to say,

00:12:07 you know, there’s a method to my madness here. Uh, what I’m what I really try to do is help people to open it up,

00:12:14 open up the gesture. And by that too, it’s experimentation. Open up, exploration,00:12:23 playfulness and experimentation. Where you’re really going in there allowing? And you’re even saying I’m going to go in and create that ugly painting.

00:12:32 I’m going to go in and do that ugly exploratory work, and I’m just allowing and I’m and I’m believing you when you’re telling me that there’s value in this because a lot of me is saying: Oh,

00:12:45 no, no, no. You know, the perfectionist is saying No, I need to do it correctly.00:12:50 I need to have all this knowledge. I need to Ah, try harder. And really So a lot of the work is is is ah asserting that the magic is not in trying harder.

00:13:04 But it’s in many ways it’s about opening up the creative channels in in a way, getting out of the way and allowing allowing the unknown to come through.

00:13:15 And that that’s where the magic is in that that’s where we want to be, is experimenting continually and continually evolving the work.

00:13:25 Yeah, the word permission kept coming to mind like which is why I think working with intention is so that if you show up and you give yourself permission to make the ugliest thing on Earth or to just explore one thing and like everything else is secondary.

00:13:41 But today I’m just gonna explore line or whatever, and it’s like permission just to play right, and it’s like I don’t know.

00:13:48 I don’t know how it’s funny. I was just thinking about this today because I’ve got three little kids and and they,

00:13:54 you know, we read about play and how important it is and like they have to play there. And then somewhere along the way we are We are like,

00:14:01 No, no, I need to show up and I need to have structure and purpose and I better do it right and there’s no permission for us just to go in and be like I’m gonna push this thing around and just see what it does when I push it right,

00:14:12 Like we we lose that and that permission to go back and have the intention to play is huge. 00:14:19 Absolutely.

00:14:20 And you just reminded me when you were talking about your three Children about the magic of watching Children, and it’s like it’s all there.

00:14:28 They don’t question what they’re doing. It’s They are in that place of absolute experimentation and play and exploration,

00:14:37 and that’s what we’re trying to re-find. And that’s what we do. And then eventually, yes, eventually,

00:14:44 in this method to the madness kind of approach. Yes, we will start to bring in some considerations some constraint.

00:14:52 Some look structure, you know, some concepts around intuitive composition, some concepts around value, and you know we’ll bring in these considerations,

00:15:03 but we’re not going to be ruled by them or stopped because we don’t want the strategic mind running the show.

00:15:12 Right? Well, we’ll just see. Oh, yeah, that’s right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

00:15:17 What I see is artists, you know, we, you know, do all these things we learn all these techniques,

00:15:23 we learn all these methods, we get better and better, better technically and all of these things. And then what happens ultimately is we want that freedom.

00:15:32 We want to open it up. We want we really do want to experiment and explore. But then we say,

00:15:37 I don’t know how, because I’ve been so perfectionistic and so caught up in technique. And so this is what we’re trying to do is kind of open it up and re-find that playfulness that’s in you Inherently.

00:15:50 Yeah, totally. And it inherently in you. Yes. Yes, it’s like, Yes, I’d be lost and you maybe haven’t touched it in a while.

00:15:57 But it’s inherently in you. And, you know, in my my field, in the expressive arts,00:16:02 that’s one of the byproducts I think of, like, you know, if you’re a visual artist like writing or using movement or something,

00:16:09 right is it’s like, Oh, I’m a visual artist. So this other stuff is just kind of other stuff.00:16:13 But it kind of tricks you into, like, silencing that part of your strategic self and having kind of different entry points in other ways.

00:16:20 And I’m just having this vision of on your website. You’ve got all this beautiful pieces where you’re painting You’ve got the super long paintbrushes moving your body right like it’s like a whole new,00:16:31 full embodied experience, right? No.

00:16:34 Well, I’m fascinated by the intersection of the arts, for example.

00:16:40 Ah, one of my friends in Australia said Nancy. It’s like I can see how you played the cello,

00:16:45 right? Because there’s, like, a kind of lyrical movement. Yeah, yeah, but you know, and I’m also fascinated by dance and choreography, by improvisational theater, by writing and writers and

00:17:00 you know, creative writing, uh, symphonic music, composing like all the intersections. Um, there’s this exercise I do with Clay that translates to the canvas or the paper,

00:17:16 and it’s about, you know, I call it the Six Macquette Exercise, where it’s like maquettes or little studies,

00:17:22 and it’s about the concept that you have your own signature, your own lexicon. Your own gestural expression that threads through what you do.

00:17:33 And so I’m really interested in continually exploring movement. Gestural expression, improv. You know,

00:17:42 I like the idea that your signature,

00:17:45 like, shows up in the clay as though, And it’s, like, threaded through to all of your other interests.

00:17:51 Yeah. Yeah. And that. And when I was working years ago in Clay and realizing this, Henry Moore did all these maquettes for his large works, monumental works.

00:18:03 So these little studies, little studies, little studies, and I love that that idea of the little studies the maquettes and then realizing that there is this movement that you have and I also aware that in improv theater we have these certain kinds of gestures we tend to have and and action theater.

00:18:21 You try to kind of open that up and bring in some more repertoire around that. But I also think that the canvas reflects too your state.

00:18:30 So it’s just like it’s like your gesture, but also the state that you’re in, psychologically

00:18:34 Yeah,

00:18:35 for sure. Yeah. Yeah. Just yesterday I did a little like, mad place along went down and I was like and I like I felt like it’s interesting when you start to pay attention and when you when you can let go cause I could feel it in my body and the way I was moving And I was lucky because I was not often When you’re mad,

00:18:54 when you can sit down and create right? So I was like, I kind of got to get this out and and I shared a photo of it on Instagram and this woman was like,

00:19:01 Oh, I can see you’re feeling in there And I was like, Yeah, isn’t it? like isn’t it crazy that you could look at something and you could be like,

00:19:08 I think you know this feeling or whether it’s right or wrong but it’s like imbued in the peaks, right?

00:19:14 It’s like coming through and like going into another dimension almost right less. 00:19:19 Oh, yes. I mean,

00:19:20 I think you could make incredible paintings when you’re angry, but we do a lot of work on that kind of,

00:19:27 Ah, the vocabulary of mark making and how different lines can express different states and how everybody’s got their different ways of expressing these different states like serene or  lyrical or agitated.

00:19:44 Welcoming ourselves into this practice right, which is why I wanted to talk to you, is because there’s no you don’t have to check yourself out the door when you come in like your work,

00:19:54 and your process is about who are you as like a spirit and a human being? And what and what and how can this practice this creative practice?

00:20:03 How can they inform each other, right?

00:20:05 Yes, I like that when you do that at back of the forth,00:20:08 back and forth. And it’s just this ongoing evolution.

00:20:13 Yeah, I don’t know how it could be any other way when I when I see other work or see other people’s,00:20:19 it’s like whether you want to name it or not. That’s what’s happening right? And so it’s been interesting for me to do this process of finding people to talk to too,

00:20:28 because I it was I had, like, one condition where I was like I only want to speak with people who I feel like in their world are embracing this back and forth and do this and it,

00:20:37 and it was harder to find than I thought it was It was really by not not that people aren’t doing it,

00:20:42 but they’re not owning. It may be right there. Not like sharing it. That’s not part of their They’re not sure.

00:20:48 And I think that what I find the more I talk to people, especially artists people are saying like,

00:20:53 Oh, no, that’s actually totally what’s happening with me, right? But that’s not We haven’t I wanted I’m happy.

00:20:58 I’m so thankful that you’re here to kind of help create space and hold space for that. That Yeah,

00:21:04 well, you know, the unknown for us, right? Yeah.

00:21:07 Well, this is such a creative process what you’re doing here,

00:21:10 you know, kind of putting this together these conversations, interactions and, uh, kind of working with that constraint of,

00:21:18 you know, wanting to work with people or talk to people in this series, you know, that we’re kind of doing this back and forth,

00:21:23 and then there’s that infinite possibility within that constraint. Wow. Right. That’s really cool.

00:21:30 That’s before we wrap up here.

00:21:32 Just tell us like what I did. You’re beautiful. You have a free course that’s online, and you’ve got lots of beautiful supports.

00:21:38 But like would else that people are, like, really interested in your work or something they’re talking about,

00:21:42 Like, how can they find you? What? What are you offering?

00:21:45 So you can find me at nancyhillis.com.

00:21:48 That’s my website. And then, um, I have a book out as you mentioned The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity and that that really kind of gets into what we’re talking about here, which is kind of the inner journey of creating and how the inner journey effects the outer journey and that the kind of language that you have with yourself,

00:22:15 you know, really matters how you, you know, relate to yourself and how that is reflected in your art.

00:22:23 So that would be a great way to go. Yes, I’ve got, um, all kinds of free offerings as well.

00:22:29 I’ve got a free seven day email course. I’ve got a webinar happening right now, different things,

00:22:35 and I have courses as well, and you could find them on my website.

00:22:39 So we’ll have links out to all of Nancy stuff too and Nancy.

00:22:42 I just saw that you were doing in person retreat, too. Yes, one being out when my kids were bigger.00:22:47 I’m gonna come do that.

00:22:49 I would love that. I would love that Rachel because, yeah, that I haven’t done a retreat in about three years in terms of what I’ve been running,

00:22:56 Ah, online programs. And I’ve been writing. But yeah, that just came up.

00:23:03 And I’m super excited because it’s at this really cool place in California, near Santa Cruz where I live and it’s this kind of space that is very kind of transformational.

00:23:13 They’re very much about yoga and meditation and mindfulness. And so it just feels wonderful there, So

00:23:21 Oh,

00:23:21 you know what’s gonna happen for you? You’re gonna go there, You’re gonna have all the space to base interaction,

00:23:25 and then you’re gonna have all this inspiration. You’ll have to go write another book for us.

That’s right!

Thank you so much for being here Nancy.

Thank you so much Rachel, I really enjoyed talking with you.




Spread the love