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The Diagonal Possible- Creativity-Serendipity & Synesthesia- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Diagonal Possible- Creativity, Serendipity & Synesthesia- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist & mathematician.


The Diagonal Possible: Creativity, Serendipity & Synesthesia


In our household, Bruce is the chef de cuisine.

This may not be unusual in the 21st century, but it turns out many of Bruce’s male friends are the chefs in their households.

Is chefdom a kind of personality indicator that encodes an increased probability of bonding between male buddies?

It certainly indicates a love of food. I believe it is also more common in California than other places.


Chef smelling herbs (not Bruce)


Early this week, Bruce was scrounging for a new recipe, because it is easy, in cooking and art alike, to fall back on the old standbys. He needed something new in the rotation. 

One of the places he goes for inspiration is The New York Times Cooking thread.

Mixed in with the flour and sugar is a subtle mix of wry social observation, sports trivia, and a keen appreciation of life’s little pleasures, centered around cooking of course, but extending to music, literature, and visual entertainment.

I think of cooking as a kind of sense amplifier that engages multiple senses in its service.


Baked Saffron Lemon Chicken


Bruce found a recipe for baked saffron lemon chicken, Moroccan in heritage. Quite simple, really. 

It called for a prodigious (to my mind) amount of lemon juice, about 3/4 of a cup in an oblong baking dish. I wondered if this was going to be a lip-puckering experience.

Bruce is normally a highly improvisational cook, substituting and making things up with joyous abandon. But for first times, he likes to follow the recipe strictly, even with all of that lemon juice.

The recipe also called for new red potatoes, small and tender.

We didn’t have any and neither did the local fancy hippie/healthy/chic grocery store. Since the potato drone delivery wasn’t operating yet, Bruce found some purple potatoes at the store in a precious, even slightly affected and presumptuous little mesh bag.


Purple potatoes


Bruce nestled those around the chicken pieces and said a prayer to the kitchen god(s) and slid the dish into the oven. 

Later that evening, when we sat down to eat the results, (which turned out to be very tender and delicious and not puckery at all) somehow the richness of the rendered chicken skin moderated the acidic harshness of the lemon and produced a balanced and tasty result.

Likewise in creative pursuits, seemingly extreme effects are moderated by careful and insightful choice of context.


Synesthesia: Sight & Taste


Before I spooned some over rice, I saw the purple potatoes and asked, “Are those prunes?”

Bruce set me straight, but it occurred to him that this was a very brief profound moment, easy to miss.

The fact that the potatoes were a “non-potato” color inspired a kind of synesthesia, where one sense affects another. 

They look like prunes from a distance, so a visual trompe d’oeil generated an invitation to explore the adjacent possible in a non-visual dimension, namely taste.

In truth, we haven’t tried the recipe with prunes yet, but we will. Bruce has enough cooking experience to imagine the harmony of flavors and I give it a good chance of success.


The Diagonal Possible


Bruce decided to call this phenomenon the diagonal possible, as it is the adjacent possible in more than one dimension, like a diagonal move on a chessboard.

The two dimensions in the cooking example are sight and taste.


Chessboard in play


It also points out why it’s good to follow the recipe at least once.

If you don’t do that, you don’t know what you’re adjacent to and can feel set adrift.

There are a number of delicious dishes from the past that Bruce can’t reproduce because he didn’t write them down and forgot what he did and even what recipe inspired them, if any. 

They’re adjacent to something, no doubt. Like Theseus and the Minotaur, keep track of where you’ve been.


Sculpture of minotaur


Cooking & Art


What is applicable to cooking can be applicable to art.

In cooking, there are some basic principles rooted in the nature of the human senses, just as in art.


When exploring a new territory of expression, you are accessing your repertoire of known experiences, and then you start riffing from there.


Working In A Series


By the way, this is one of the advantages of working in a series.

This week, a new series of paintings burst forth. It was as if the clouds parted and the sun shone through the darkness of the past 15 months. 

A sense of hope manifested in something visual. 


Fire & Flower- Nancy Hillis

Fire & Flower- Nancy Hillis


It’s interesting how the creative impulse whispers in ones ear. I felt a sudden urge to explore two things: 


  • Big, gestural brushstrokes
  • Red/pink color palette


A red/pink color palette is an unusual choice for me. Something called me to explore it.

I quickly set up my studio with: 


  • -a 36” x 60” sheet of paper on the easel 
  • -raspberry and carmine acrylic paint
  • -satin gloss medium
  • -large, 3-4” wide brushes
  • -sash brushes
  • -buckets of water


Preparing To Paint

Paint, Medium, Brushes- Preparing To Paint


 The creative impulse can be subtle and easily missed or dismissed.


I had no idea where this was going and, like the prune recipe, decided to say yes to this exploration.

Like Descartes’ famous probabilistic argument about why it was a good idea to believe in God, there was small downside and very large potential upside.


Just as in the adjacent possible, one brushstroke led to the next unknown move that was not only invisible before, but didn’t exist before. Likewise, one painting led to the next and the next- all unknown territory but explored stepwise, adjacent upon adjacent. 


The first painting led to this painting. 


Red Series #2- Nancy Hillis

Red Series #2- Nancy Hillis


Angular movements emerged in relationship to the curvilinear moves.

A thought emerged: I could cut these up into 12 x 12 inch boxes and explore combinatorics/re-combinatorics, but decided to let it live, “as is” for awhile. 

The next day, a variation on the theme emerged.


Red Series #3-Nancy Hillis

Red Series #3- Nancy Hillis


On a roll, another painting emerged, this one with a bit more light peeking through compared to Red Series #2.

The next day, even more light appeared.


Red Series #4- Nancy Hillis

Red Series #4- Nancy Hillis


On the fifth day, this painting emerged.


Red Series #5- Nancy Hillis

Red Series #5- Nancy Hillis


I decided to rotate it into a vertical orientation. This may be the last painting, or there may be many more to emerge in the series.

Who knows where this series will go?

Into the adjacent possible, I suppose.



With gratitude from my studio to yours,


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