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Full Circle From Shadows To Nuances- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Full Circle From Shadows To Nuances- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

A Solo Art Exhibition 


The exhibition began innocently enough.

It was a solo art exhibition of my art which included twenty-five large scale abstract expressionist paintings.

The unifying concept was The Map and the Territory, after Bruce had commented that the paintings reminded him of the world seen from the air, the abstraction of altitude.

The year was 2015 and the show was at the Sunset Center’s Marjorie Evans Gallery in Carmel, California.

We rented a beat-up old white cargo van in Santa Cruz and proceeded to load 25 abstract paintings before chugging south on Highway 1 in a cloud of blue smoke.

I was bleary eyed from being up until 4 am blow drying the still wet mixed media paintings. A few of them had a bit of oil pastel mark making. Oh no! What was I thinking?

The Herculean feat of trying to set those marks was like cleaning the Augean stables, perhaps this was his thirteenth task had he decided to paint after the Trojan War.

By mid morning, we drove the unwieldy van along the Monterey Bay coastline, through the pungent sulfurous aroma of the Brussels sprouts fields and the dormant rows of strawberries, heading 42 miles to Carmel to deliver the paintings for the next evening’s opening.

After discussing placement of the artworks, we left the rest to the gallery staff and headed home.

The next afternoon, I teetered into the gallery in 4 inch heels. a pencil skirt and fuchsia swing jacket. Bruce was decked in black slacks, white shirt, and black leather jacket.



Nancy Hillis Solo Exhibition

Nancy Hillis Solo Exhibition:: The Map & The Territory



We nervously awaited.

Pretty soon, people showed up. Conversations ensued. Champagne glasses were filled and a murmur filled the space.



Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill- Full Circle

Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill- Full Circle


A Childhood Friend


A childhood friend of Bruce’s had agreed to make his famous margaritas for the opening.

They had become famous three decades earlier in a warehouse in un-gentrified San Francisco, a rope swing hanging from the ceiling and pet parakeets flying free.

At that long ago party in San Francisco, our friend had the brilliant idea of serving his margaritas in those plastic glasses that come 50 to a pack, with the bowls and the bases separate, to be assembled by the user.

Our friend had the novel idea of skipping the bases so people were unable to set their drinks down.

He managed to turn a crowd of 50 educated, artistic, accomplished people into gibbering idiots inside of an hour.

Such behavior was maybe OK for the halcyon days of bohemian San Francisco, but heaven forbid such uncouthness in rarefied Carmel. So we had proper glasses for the margaritas.

The conversations and the gestures became more animated.


The Moment That Changed Everything


And then, half an hour into the reception as daylight was fading the lights went out.

Darkness descended.

The hum of electricity silenced.

A surreal surprise.

For a moment I was stunned–and then my mind searched for a solution. But others had already happened upon one.

I decided to laugh at the Fates when I realized that even in this seeming setback was the possibility for something magical.

This makes for an unforgettable story, one you’ll tell your grandchildren one day.

A tree in the Carmel Forest had fallen on a power line, answering the question, What happens when a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it?

What unfolded for the next half hour in the darkness made the night unforgettable and reminded me of my long, circuitous art journey.


My Journey From Shadows To Nuances


Years ago, I was a radiologist.

I found radiology to be very visual, logical and linear. It was about shadows on films and recognizing patterns.

Soon, though, I realized that radiology was too constraining for my temperament and I turned to psychiatry which I found to be more relational, intuitive, and creative.

Changing direction from radiology to psychiatry, though seemingly unrelated on the surface, was in fact simply moving from shadows to nuances as Dr. John Shillito a neurosurgeon and èminence grise at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told me at the time.

This stepping into the mystery, allowing ambiguity, and experiencing ‘not knowing’ was similar to my new experience of painting at the time. As my study of psychiatry deepened, my painting journey took off.

The night the lights failed, it occurred to me and my husband, physicist Dr. Bruce Sawhill, that radiology requires a great deal of electrical power and furthermore every branch of medicine with the exception of psychiatry requires power and machines.

Experiencing the suddenly blacked out exhibition was reminiscent of reading x–rays in the darkened, subterranean catacombs of the radiology department.

The Solution


Gallery visitors spontaneously produced cell phones from coats, pockets and purses. Clusters of viewers joined together to shed their lights onto the exhibition.

Pondering paintings with these tiny lights felt similar to doctors attempting to divine the ineffable inner workings of the human body with X-rays. Each beam of light illuminated only parts of the body of the painting, and that imperfectly.

A few dozen cell phones cast a surprising amount of light!

It was like the Middle Ages where people used candlelight to discern the images before them in the dark vaults of the cathedral. The inventiveness, imagination, and creative problem solving of the viewers was a delight to behold as the art became participatory and came full circle as art imitated life.

At that moment, I began to see the disparate strands of my life knit together.

I had many opportunities afterwards to think about the relationship of surprise to transformation. The world thinks of things that you cannot.

The lights going out in the gallery made the lights go on in my brain.

And this kind of surprise is not an uncommon thing, if only one is open to it.


From our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Every New Year’s Eve, Bruce performs at an organ concert. Here is one of the pieces he played with Renata Bratt (our daughter’s cello teacher). This piece is Lament by Frederik Magle. We believe this performance was the world premiere for this arrangement for organ and cello. This performance is dedicated to all those who lost loved ones in the pandemic.



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