Light in art is a concept that threads through our experience as artists as well as throughout our lives from the moment of birth
I’ve been reflecting on an experience that reflects the importance and centrality of light in our lives as artists. Here’s my story.
My solo art exhibition of twenty five large scale paintings a few years ago, The Map and the Territory, at the Marjorie Evans Gallery in Carmel, California contained a surreal surprise.
Full Circle: From Shadows to Nuances in a Power Failure
Life truly imitated art when half an hour into the reception as daylight was fading the lights went out!
A tree in the Carmel Forest fell on a power line, answering the question, ‘What happens when a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it?”
What unfolded for the next half hour in the darkness made the night unforgettable and reminded me of my long, circuitous art journey.
Years ago, I was a radiologist.
I found radiology to be visual, logical and linear. It was about shadows on films and recognizing patterns.
Soon, though, I realized that radiology was too constraining for my temperament and I turned to psychiatry which I found to be more relational, intuitive, and creative.
From Shadows To Nuances
Changing direction from radiology to psychiatry, though seemingly unrelated on the surface, was in fact simply moving ‘from shadows to nuances’ as John Shillito a neurosurgeon and éminence grise at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told me at the time.
Stepping into the mystery, allowing ambiguity, and experiencing ‘not knowing’ was similar to my new experience of painting at the time. As my study of psychiatry deepened, my painting journey took off.
The night the lights failed, it occurred to me and my partner, physicist Dr. Bruce Sawhill, that radiology requires a great deal of electrical energy and furthermore every branch of medicine with the exception of psychiatry requires power and machines.
Experiencing the suddenly darkened exhibition was reminiscent of reading x-rays in the darkened, subterranean catacombs of the radiology department
To my astonishment, gallery visitors spontaneously produced their cell phones from coats, pockets and purses. Clusters of viewers joined together to shed illumination onto the exhibition.
Pondering paintings with these tiny lights felt similar to doctors attempting to divine the ineffable inner workings of the human body with x-rays. Each beam of light illuminated only parts of the body of the painting, and that imperfectly.
I realized that a few dozen cell phones cast a surprising amount of light!
It was like the Middle Ages where people used candlelight to discern the images before them in the dark vaults of the cathedral
The inventiveness, imagination, and creative problem solving of the viewers was a delight to behold as the paintings became participatory and came full circle as art imitated life.
At that moment, I saw the disparate strands of my life knit together.
I began to see the power of light threading through life in both spiritual and secular texts across time: Let there be light. Light of my life. I see the light. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.
Metaphorically, light stands for illumination
It symbolizes purity, openness, clarity, insight, revelation. I see the light is about an aha moment, a new understanding.
As artists, we’re in conversation with lightness and darkness. Stepping into the mystery, into the unknown, we’re continually searching and finding our way in the shadows…
And finding and expressing ourselves as we go.
From my studio to yours,
P.S. After this experience, I asked Bruce to research how to illuminate a studio space like they do in the Sistine Chapel and the British Museum.
He came up with a solution that transformed my studio from shadowy to awash in spectacular light.
Originally published at Nancy Hillis.