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The Hero's Journey & Art- Nancy Hillis MD

The Hero’s Journey & Art- 2021- Nancy Hillis MD. This post ran previously.

The Hero’s Journey & Art


Our lives are a hero’s journey of moving from the known to the unknown and returning back again, transformed.

As artists, we continually step into the unknown and evolve our work. We search and find our way, lose and find ourselves in our paintings and explore and experiment on our journey of self expression.

I’m reminded of the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who, in his literary masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, embarked on a perilous journey to find meaning in his search for divine love, for God. Likewise, as artists, we too are on our own journey of meaning, aliveness and transformation.

In the opening salvo, Dante wrote:


In the middle of the road of my life

I awoke in a dark wood

Where the true way was wholly lost

The Human Condition


Dante takes us immediately into the human condition, into the existential issues of being alive and yet feeling lost, unsure and alone.

Opening the story with a crisis, we’re compelled to venture forth into the terra incognita, the territory of not knowing. We are called to adventure.

We’re invited to look into and reflect on the great mystery of our heart and its desires, to explore the reaches of our imagination, to examine our resistances and blocks and whatever else holds us back.

And it turns out that there are guides to help us through the perils and frustrations. Dante was guided through hell by the great Roman poet Virgil. We have our own guides: mentors, teachers and other artists.


The Dark Night Of The Soul


And ultimately on our journey, we find ourselves facing the mother of all perils: the dark night of the soul. The moment of greatest self doubt. The moment we feel like giving up. The moment we must dig deeper and find and face ourselves.

This is the lowest point, the nadir, and yet the place where the most profound movement, change and revelation occurs.




And ultimately, we’re transformed in some way.

As artists, this transformation takes the form of going deeper as we express our feelings and our truth and as we begin to trust ourselves in our art.

And finally, we return- back to the known, back to our lives, but never quite the same again after our awakening.

And then, we’re called to adventure again- and we say “yes” and we’re immediately plunged into the unknown and the cycle continues throughout our lives.


Yearning For Self Expression


I was thinking about the hero’s journey when an artist wrote to me recently about noticing the barriers she creates for herself and the self doubt that holds her back in her art. Her previous working method was no longer satisfying and she wanted to explore something new.

She yearned for something more.

Yet, as she dipped her toe into the waters of acrylic paint she felt tentative, apprehensive and uncertain.


Let’s Delve Deeper Into The Hero’s Journey


Many people know that Joseph Campbell popularized the idea of the hero’s journey in 1949 in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces but the concept was first formulated in 1871 by English cultural anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. Tylor found that there are certain patterns in stories that thread through all cultures and that have deep psychological significance.

In the hero’s journey, the hero is called to adventure. The hero is invited to move from ordinary life (the known) into an experience of the unknown.


The Refusal


But the problem is that, at first, we (the hero) tend to refuse the call to action. It’s scary, unknown territory and we’re not sure we can face our fears and self doubt. It’s more comfortable to stay with the status quo than to venture into the unknown.

And we could say “no”, we could refuse our hero’s journey – but to do so would be to live a life of un-lived dreams. Our eyes would eventually glaze over, our inner light dimmed by resignation and the feeling of boredom, ennui and quiet despair. We’d be imprisoned in a house of meaninglessness like Bluebeard in his castle.

Joseph Campbell wrote:


Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work or culture, the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless.

The Answer Is Yes


And so one day, you say “yes” to your yearning for something new, something that will bring you alive.

And you plunge into the unknown, knowing that the journey is riddled with perils. But you go ahead anyway. You take the leap of faith because you know you simply must say “yes” to your yearning for an experience of meaning and aliveness.


The Hero’s Journey Is Finding Yourself


In the hero’s journey you rediscover and affirm yourself. You move from the known to the unknown, facing your fears as you undergo challenges and tests, searching and finding your way, being helped by guides and ultimately facing yourself in the dark night of the soul which is the moment of greatest self doubt yet also the moment of transformation.


Something New Is Calling You


In art and life, something new, something ineffable, unknown, inarticulable is calling you. Something nascent, in seed form, is trying to emerge and be expressed.

Even so, you feel hesitant. This is to be expected. It’s scary to step deeper into not knowing, to wrestle with the dark angels of self doubt, to face some of the works that come out of this exploration, many of which feel unfamiliar, strange, unrecognizable, even “ugly”.

Give yourself permission to allow this deep experimentation that’s pushing for expression. Show up in your studio without knowing what’s going to happen. See it as a process of curiosity and inquiry. Create exploratory studies and experimental works without worrying about outcome.

Say “yes” to your hero’s journey of finding and expressing YOU in your art and life.


In gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. If you enjoy this blog, you’ll love my book The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity

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