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Swimming-Art & Zero To One- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Swimming, Art & Zero To One- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Swimming, Art & Zero to One


We have often spoken of the idea of Zero to One, an idea that is both mathematical and existential, of going from nothing to something. It’s about doing something you’ve never done before.

Even though this concept is very relevant when you, as an artist, face the blank canvas, it has application far beyond the world of art.

It comes up so many times in a typical day that it is easy to take for granted or miss it entirely.

Every day is composed of many micro decisions, some of which happen so fast and subtly that they don’t even break the surface of consciousness. Perhaps it would be overwhelming if they were all conscious. Should I wear the blue shirt or the green? Maybe I’ll take this other way home. I never saw the sun quite at that angle before. 

Sometimes you don’t even have to *do* anything, just perceive. And in perception is the beginnings of creation.


A Case Study


One of the perennial joys of Bruce’s life has been swimming. He started when he was four years old, taught by his father who had been a diver on the University of Washington swim team.  By the age of six he was competing. 

Swimming was his constant companion through childhood and adolescence, faithfully present in its chlorinated sort of way, the pool ever forgiving, all transgressions writ on water. 

And ultimately it was his ticket out of Detroit, a place he never felt he belonged. The vehicle of escape was a swimming scholarship to Stanford University, a place he had never seen but had heard glowing reports about, all palm trees and sandstone. 

Even though he only competed for a year because of the demands of pursuing a course of study in physics, swimming stayed with him. He continued to swim with classmates through undergrad and grad school, and then as a Master’s swimmer post-University. 

Fast forward many years to the chapter of life when Bruce and Nancy have met and gotten together in Santa Cruz, California, not that far from Stanford.

Nancy had been a lifeguard in high school, but had never pursued swimming to the point of competition, instead just to the level of utility as a lifesaver. 

Since swimming had always been such a big part of Bruce’s life, it is not surprising he wanted to share it with Nancy. And, like many things, it is more enjoyable if you’re better at it.


First Attempts


First attempts at swimming together and coaching from Bruce occurred about ten years ago. Some progress was made, but it still wasn’t very enjoyable for Nancy. Her stroke got more efficient, but she would get out of breath and have to stop after two lengths of the pool.

This was a bit of a mystery. Nancy had no breath issues anywhere else, hard hikes did not faze her, but there was something about swimming that made her gasp for air.

Life intervened, then COVID, and there was a 5 or 6 year break from swimming. 


Zero To One: Just Start


After a long pandemic shutdown, the University of California/Santa Cruz pool opened, just four minutes up the street. We decided to give swimming another go.

Here’s where the perception part came in:  Bruce would duck down in the water and look at Nancy swimming from underneath to try to understand any issues. Nancy’s stroke got smooth and symmetric with gentle coaching, and she became aware of just how many thrashers and flailers and punchers were out there in the wider water world, frothing up the lanes.

But breathing was still an issue. We were gasping at straws. Nancy was ready to give it up.

But Nancy’s breathing looked fine, in a good musical rhythm with the rest of her stroke. 

So Bruce decided to think about his own breathing, so automatic it was beneath notice and just took care of itself. In order to breathe in, you first have to breathe out. Bruce realized that a big portion of this (not all) occurred underwater in the form of a plume of exhaled bubbles, which then left more time to breathe in when his mouth turned to the side for a breath. (swimming freestyle)

This tiny amount of additional time, probably less than 1/10th of a second, meant that he got more air in each breath, and this added up over time to a sustainable rhythm.

It only took a short time to incorporate this realization into Nancy’s swimming, and now she can swim dozens of lengths without stopping! Now we swim every other day for miles.

Swimming & Painting


What does swimming have to do with painting? They both involve saying yes.

Humans are hard-wired to walk and crawl and express themselves but if thrown in water without preparation, there is a high risk of drowning. 

Swimming involves a conscious decision, to do something that requires learned coordination and practice. We are not stuck with the programming of our genetic bequest, we can add things to the menu.

Zero to One. Put your toe in the water.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Exciting News! We have a tradition to honor the arrival of Spring by exploring the explosion of color all around. On that note, we are running a Spring Special on our Experimenting With Color Course until April 16.  Check it out HERE. 


The Adjacent Possible

The Adjacent Possible


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Grace stared at her prize paintings and wondered…
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