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Painting Large: Nature Paints Last- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Painting Large: Nature Paints Last- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Painting Large: Nature Paints Last


In late April, we decided to verify something we’d read in the news.

Supposedly there were vast expanses of flowers near the Central Coast of California, so enormous no one could remember seeing anything like it before. But the thing that startled us and spurred us to action was that they could be seen from the International Space Station.

“Yeah, right,” we opined. “Somebody must be trying to sell something.”

Either that, or “seeing from space” meant using a telephoto lens ten feet long- the kind that spy satellites use to read your menu to see what you’re eating and various filters for infrared, ultraviolet, and gullibility.

But then we saw this image…


Carrizo Plain from Space

Carrizo Plain from Space


After weeks of battling an endlessly resurgent cold, plus months of rain before that, we decided a little road trip was in order to lift our spirits. 

Wildflowers, here we come.


An Ancient Trodden Path


We lit out of our little seaside fastness (Old English: refuge) of Santa Cruz and cruised south, following the path of the Spanish missionaries 250 years before, a couple of red-roofed stone and adobe missions visible from the 101 freeway.

The ancient trodden path marked by slightly cheesy steel poles with imitation mission bells hanging from their shepherd’s-crooked tops.

The bells are evidently highly coveted, and they decorate the halls of many university fraternity houses throughout California, a headache for the highway department that installs them.

We made our base camp in Paso Robles. A town whose name meaning Oak pass mirrors the undulating fields of oak trees dotting the landscape.




Sensorio: An Art Installation


That evening, we drove four miles outside of town to an art installation called ‘Sensorio’, comprising 100,000 LED spheres mounted on little staves, like those garden lights one buys at hardware stores.

These were wired together and computer controlled, the product of the artist Bruce Munro, an English/Australian “light sculptor,” who, like many artists, was a twenty-year “overnight success.”

The installation is a kind of modern-day homage to the artist Christo, fifteen hilly acres covered with tennis-ball sized spheres spaced every six to nine inches, about 18 inches above ground.

As night fell, they glowed, very faintly at first, but then more and more so, such that if you looked away and then looked back, it was an emerging kaleidoscope of lights, colors slowly morphing through the spectrum.




Light Towers


Another part of the installation, called Light Towers, was dozens of light towers comprised of hundreds of clear wine bottles, all of them wired with LEDs.





There was a sort of Christmas tree feeling to the towers as they lit up internally.


No Starving Artist



This was not the product of a starving artist, or at least he wasn’t starving any more.

The landscape featured a food and wine terrace, live band, and various booths selling merchandise. The grounds were carefully tended, starting with a parking lot suitable for a rock concert or sports event.





The pathways were bermed into the hillsides with rocks inside of stout wire mesh cages. Observation benches were ubiquitous, tastefully created out of wrought iron, wood, and flagstone. 

A rough calculation made us realize this is a multimillion dollar per year operation, though it’s also true dozens of staff are likely necessary to keep it running.

Like the few hundred people there (it was a slow night) we wandered, transfixed, through the glowing, colorful landscape.

What could top this?

We were about to find out.


Nature’s Art: An Artist’s Palette On A Cosmic Scale


The next day we drove through a lurid green landscape of hills and oak trees and sinuous river courses, tall grasses dancing in waves driven by the wind. The ribbon of road undulating through the panorama like a dream we never wanted to wake up from. 

California has an astonishing amount of “empty” space for a place inhabited by tens of millions of residents.

Seventy miles of hills and mountains and plains and only a handful of ranches and other residences brought us to the entrance of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, one of the last remaining native grasslands in the state.

As we drove down the old road, more patches than smooth asphalt, a surreal landscape unfolded before us.

At the center of the Monument is a vernal pool, meaning one that comes and goes in the spring (from Latin vernalis, from vernus ‘of the spring’), driven by rainfall and evaporation. Because of a rainy winter for the record books, the lake was miles long and wide, hardly a ‘pool.’





But surrounding the lake were blooms of wildflowers.

As we got closer, their true extent became apparent. Square miles of wildflowers!



Nancy- Carrizo Plain

Nancy- Carrizo Plain



Breathing out a divine scent, one that made every molecule of one’s being want to take it in and become part of it. We were hyperventilating.


It was an artist’s palette on a cosmic scale, painted by a paintbrush the size of a city.



Bruce- Carrizo Plain Lupins

Bruce- Carrizo Plain Lupines



A composition in hues of lemon-yellow, pale Naple’s yellow, and tangerine, tinged with chalk white, dioxazine violet, red-violet, and blue-violet.

These eruptions of chromatic color was interwoven with earth tones and grays: yellow ochre, dark umber, raw umber, and Van Dyke brown.

And then there were greens- silvery green, green gold, Jenkin’s green. A plein aire painter’s dream.

An entire mountain range beyond the lake was swathed in color.



Nature's Brush Strokes- Carrizo Plain

Nature’s Brush Strokes- Carrizo Plain



It made me want to get out my oils and capture the essence of it with impasto brushstrokes.


A Fault Line


The San Andreas fault bisects the landscape, the same fault that shocked settlers in 1857 and later destroyed San Francisco in 1906 (The 1857 shock was thirteen years before the rise of the American West in the 1870s which was a time of unprecedented disruption and transformation in some ways still unrivaled even compared to post war economic and population boom or the rise of the tech industry. But that’s another topic for another essay).

We remembered back to a fateful day in 1989, October 17 to be exact, when that same fault slipped again in Santa Cruz County.

It just so happened at that moment that a baseball game was about to start, the first game of the Transbay World Series, a baseball game between  between Oakland and San Francisco.

The game was hurriedly cancelled and the stadium evacuated. A radio announcer opined, “Nature bats last.”


Nature bats last.

-Radio announcer at the World Series, 1989


But this day in the Carrizo Plain we saw the flip side of such destructive power.


There is no creation without destruction. Nature As Artist also paints last.


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

All 4 Books were in the Top 100 Creativity Self Help on the Amazon Charts this past week!




Meanwhile, The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity (The Art Of The Possible Series Book 1) was chosen for a Kindle Monthly Deal in the month of April 2023. Get your ebook copy of this award winning book for only $1.99.

Pair your explorations in your art studio with our Art of the Possible Book Series!

The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity (The Art Of The Possible Series Book 1) was chosen for a Kindle Monthly Deal in the month of April 2023. Get your ebook copy of this award winning book for only $1.99.















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