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The Adjacent Possible: The Story Of Creativity | Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Adjacent Possible: The Story Of Creativity | Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD. This post is an excerpt from the award winning book, The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation. 

The Adjacent Possible: The Story Of Creativity


Art is a mirror; it reflects your life.


Art, literature, and music reflect life. They resonate with us because we are moved by the intellectual and spiritual nourishment they provide. They make universal truths personal and accessible.

Humans are moved by stories. However far back we delve into the human history of communication, the concept of story shows up again and again.

From cave paintings to Homer and into our present age, stories persist. There is scientific evidence that our brains retain information more effectively when there is a connecting framework, a narrative. Ideas need to be woven into a context to survive, a kind of tapestry of meaning.

This narrative can be explicit, expressed in words, or implicit, expressed in patterns of sound or light.

It seems self-evident how a work of literature might tell a story, with carefully structured prose that develops an idea. But how would a work like an abstract painting or sonata tell a story?


The Hero’s Journey


In the 1870s, the English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor undertook a systematic comparison of heroic journeys in literature across human history and found that they tended to adhere to a standard repeating form of challenge-refusal-tipping point-acceptance-crisis-victory-assimilation.

Tylor’s ideas gained much wider acceptance in the 20th century with their popularization and further development by Joseph Campbell and others.

I submit to you that the Hero’s Journey is not limited to literature but occurs in abstract fields as well. The “hero” does not have to be a person, but can be an idea, a form, a theme, a pattern of sound or light. It can refer both to the creator and the object of creation.

Human brains have evolved to excel at noticing patterns, probably because it confers increased chances of survival in a world of ever-present danger, whether saber-toothed tigers, art critics, or blank canvasses.


The Importance of Evolving as An Artist


Recently I was thinking about how we never stand still as artists. In my own work, I’ve traveled the territory of working in bold, chromatic colors to predominantly neutral palettes.

And yet, even as I begin to identify this pattern, I notice a slight stirring in my heart to revisit my old love of bright hues.


Evolution, Human Development & Art


As artists and creators, we’re continually evolving our work. Not satisfied to remain static, we explore and experiment.

This suggests the notion of evolution as analogous to human development and how essential this is to being an artist. I believe we move through developmental cycles much like the stages of human development.


As Shakespeare said in As You Like It,

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one in his time plays many parts,

-William Shakespeare


His acts being seven ages .

In the beginning, there’s mirroring. We soak up the works of the masters and artists we admire and reflect it back in our art much like a mother reflects the feelings and emotions of her baby. The late British psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott said:


In individual emotional development the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.

-D.W. Winnicott


Early on, we mimic what we see—we learn techniques and how to use various tools.

At first it feels awkward, but eventually we begin to create marks and paint passages with facility.

  • We study the vocabulary of composition and color theory.
  • We begin to speak a new language.
  • We explore value patterns much as children discover their shadows.
  • We become increasingly facile with rendering what we see before us, whether it’s a figure, landscape, still life, or the work of a masterful painter.


But one day, this isn’t enough.

One day, it’s no longer gratifying.

One day, like a teenager, we grow bored.

One day, we decide we want to:

  • Paint the ineffable
  • Explore the mystery of who we are
  • Express our aliveness
  • Compose our own individuality


And so, we plunge into unknown territory and begin our journey of experimentation.

There’s no final phase. You don’t reach some evolved state and stay there. It is continuous evolution.

Even as you develop mastery, there is no endpoint. Indeed, we often come full circle and revisit earlier phases but now with new understandings.

We spiral back to our foundations and see with new eyes.


The Hero’s Journey & The Adjacent Possible


The abstracted hero steps outside of self-consistent reality to something new, something adjacent, and the Hero’s Journey is a story of the Adjacent Possible, of exploration, incorporation, and return.

An artwork tells a story in time or space of the journey, the travelogue of entering an unfamiliar world and overcoming the challenges of making sense of it and incorporating the newness into the creator’s previous reality.


The Adjacent Possible becomes integrated into the creator’s new reality, and the artwork is its record.

As Pablo Picasso said,


Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.

-Pablo Picasso


It is a process like the Dutch creation of polders—inholdings of underwater land diked and emptied of water to become new land, land that joins the previously extant landscape to make a cohesive whole.


Liminal States


A “liminal state” is a poised state of being, one that exists on the boundary of two realities. The word comes from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold.”

The concept of the liminal state was first developed in the early 20th century by folklorist Arnold Van Gennep, who, like Tylor before him, was seeking to understand the structure of story.

In literature, a liminal deity is a god or goddess who presides over thresholds, whether gates or doorways.

Liminal states are relevant to our discussion because they relate to poised instability, the Adjacent Possible, and the Hero’s Journey.

The Adjacent Possible can be seen as an alternate reality that is nearby, through a doorway that one may or may not choose to pass through.

The Hero’s Journey is the act of decision—Should I pass through the doorway or am I sufficiently content where I am? What threats await me on the other side? Confronting a new possible reality can be disorienting.


This point of decision is a point of poised instability—An uncomfortable place pregnant with possibility, the knife edge where creativity lives.

In psychology a liminal experience is associated with existential issues of death, illness, and disaster—the negative thoughts associated with the Hero’s Journey.

The purpose of this book is to tell you, dear Reader and Artist, stories of the liminal state and to convince you it is a place you might not only want to visit, but to take up permanent residence. We’ll open with two artist’s vignettes—one from Brittany Lyn, the other from Marian Bach.


Vignette: Brittany Lyn


In preparing for lengthy train journeys to visit family out of town, I always made sure to have a book packed and readily accessible. Surely there was some unwritten rule that nobody sits on a train doing absolutely nothing .

Inevitably, the book would remain unopened in my hands.

Arriving at the destination, I would be somewhat wary of the fact that I had indeed spent the entire trip staring out the window. Was there something ‘simple’ about my mind that it needed no additional stimulation? Who does that? a critical voice chirped in the back of my mind.

This was my perspective a few years ago. I am extraordinarily grateful for the day my younger self decided to bring a pen and a sketchbook along for one of those train rides.



Brittany Lynn- photo of drawings

Brittany Lynn | Noticing, 3″ x 5″ each



Looking back at the sketches today, I can now see that, this ‘doing nothing’ was a period full of appreciation of the fleeting observations of line, shape, movement, and pattern falling around me as the train raced through the landscape. These raw sketches are a record of my experience existing in a given space and time.

Regardless of whether these observations were ever captured on paper, I have learned there is value in taking time to simply be and observe. It is a practice of noticing that inevitably informs the gestures of future work.

—Brittany Lyn


Vignette: Marian Bach


I am eager to share this collage of many discoveries, foundations, and big ahhs that I’ve learned studying with Nancy. A hero’s journey by any definition.



Marian Bach-Between The Lines. Mark Making.

Marian Bach | Between the Lines, 22″ x 30″



Over time I developed a strong studio practice.



Marian Bach | Once A Landscape

Marian Bach | Once A Landscape, 42″ x 30″



The inarticulable satisfaction I’ve found there made me realize, I am living a dream, I am living the Life of the Artist.



Marian Bach | Study, 13 x 13

Marian Bach | Study, 13 x 13



Quartet of My Life, Quartet of My Art


You can start anywhere.
Trust yourself, you are the Artist

On a Hero’s Journey.

Our Inner Landscape is
The Overarching Principle in Art and in Life. (b/c it’s hard)
Value, Structure, Predominance,
Simplicity and Constraint,
Color, and Mark Making,
Beginners Mind.
Dive Deep for these Pearls.
Studio Practice
(Zero to One)
Many, many Starts, Less Finishes,
No Precious Paintings,
Work in a Series,
Try a One- or Two-Color Palette

Try the Maquettes (a Treasure Trove and Big Fun). Ugly Paintings Love You Back.

Cultivate Ease
Notice, as you Explore and

Embrace Not Knowing.
It’s Where the Juice Is.
Poised Instability Means Something Exciting is on the Verge Keep Going and Trusting,

As you Become Your Best Teacher

—Marian Bach


Reflection: The Spiral of Creation


Life is like a spiral. We come around, again and again—each time a bit different as we face ourselves in our art and life. Reflect on the spirals in your own life. What are the recurrent themes and lessons?



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. If you enjoyed this excerpt from our newest book which won the Book Excellence Award: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories Of Artistic Transformation, you’ll love the other stories and artwork by 25 amazing artists who are employing concepts from The Adjacent Possible in their art.

Get your copy now: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook * Stories Of Artistic Transformation




Click HERE to order your book. 







Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill, Authors of The Adjacent Possible books and blog

Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill, PhD, Authors of The Adjacent Possible books and blog


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