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Betwixt and Between

Finding Yourself in Liminal Space

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Life must have its sacred moments and its holy places. We need the infinite, the limitless, the uttermost - all that can give the heart a deep and strengthening peace.          - A. Powell Davies

There is a sacred pause, a holy moment between action and reaction, crisis and response. This tiny gap holds an entire universe of possibilities within it. It is a space of transition from one state of being to another where you are neither here nor there, you are not who you were and neither are you who you will be next.

The Romans called this “liminal” space, a threshold between now and then, here and there. Just as time is made up of day and night, and a song is made up of music and silence, so are our lives made of joy and sorrow, birth, death, and rebirth. In many traditional cultures, thresholds are considered magical spaces where traditional rules do not apply.

Being in a liminal space can be incredibly uncomfortable for most people. Our brain craves homeostasis and predictability, and liminal space is everything but. Our minds race to make something out of nothing. Being human, we tend to fill these spaces with worry or imagine the silence as some form of punishment, or we internalize the time we are not in touch with a loved one as some unexpressed change of heart. In uncertain circumstances, we tend to focus hard, think through solutions, and control outcomes. This often leads to feelings of panic, stress, and overwhelm. 

Relaxing into uncertainty, on the other hand, switches on the superpower of human imagination. It takes us from terrified confusion into openness, curiosity, and most of all, creativity.

Creativity is the cure for the uncertainty and overwhelm of a liminal time. The parts of the brain involved in creativity aren’t prone to fear, so as we enter a creative mindset, we feel stronger and happier. We may end up becoming fascinated with what’s happening. We may begin to deal with our situations the way children deal with new toys, taking stock of them, trying out new things, and enjoying the entire process… in a word, playing.

If you’re going through a liminal time, try this. First let yourself worry, obsess, and think about any problems facing you. Then, drop the whole subject and do something relaxing. Pet your cat, paint a picture, bake a cake, take a walk, make yourself a paper hat—anything that helps you feel at ease.

This pattern of action (thinking intensely about a difficult situation, then relaxing) programs our brains to come up with creative solutions. Puzzling about a problem primes our brain to seek creative solutions.

Following this effort with a period of relaxation or play, the brain keeps working on the problem without us even noticing. When we’re least expecting it, a brilliant solution may pop into our minds. Psychologists call this “the Eureka effect” (“eureka” is Greek for “I’ve got it!”).

This is how human beings have invented everything from shoes to spaceships. We aren’t as strong or fast as many animals, but we can use difficult situations to create new ideas like no other creatures on earth. And often, the more difficult our circumstances, the more brilliant our ideas.

A falling apple prompted physicist Isaac Newton to formulate his laws of gravity. Greek polymath Archimedes took a bath and figured out how to calculate volume and density. These are iconic “light bulb” moments in the history of science.

Both stories about Newton and Archimedes speak to the need to quiet the mind and be contemplative. Also, the putting together of disparate things—a falling apple and gravity, an overflowing bathtub, and specific gravity tells us that creativity needs liminal space to thrive.

Actor John Cleese likens creativity to a tortoise. There’s an idea. The tortoise gently comes out of its shell, looks around, and if you say, Oh, that’s stupid. I don’t have time, back it goes. But if you give it liminal space for contemplative thinking and you give it the time, it grows.

As a creative person, you probably recognize this pattern and maybe you already know how to jump from worry to wonder.

Liminal space is the uncertain transition between where you've been and where you're going physically, emotionally, or metaphorically. To be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet.

Physical liminal spaces are an aesthetic in their own right. Consider how liminal spaces are employed in architecture, a beautiful atrium in a museum's entryway, a glorious bridge across a river, or a staircase. A staircase takes you from one floor to another, and you often don’t think twice about your time on a staircase. But what if you get stuck in an enclosed stairwell? Then, visions of horror movies might start racing through your head. But a staircase can also be a grand entryway, a decorative spiral that leads you from one experience to another.  

Watch how architects compress and expand space and how they use decoration, and simplification, light, and darkness to affect your experience of these spaces.

As you walk through the world around you notice how architects employ liminal space to amplify the experience they create for you. Hotels, airports, train stations, cruise ports, ships, trains, subways, busses, and gas stations are all liminal spaces that are transition points between one place and another. 

An emotional liminal space is a transitionary period. Many look like endings, and to some degree, they are as they divide our lives into pre-divorce and post-divorce, pre-graduation and post-graduation, for example. In the aftermath of one of these events, one door slams shut, and you’re not yet sure where or when the next door will open. We encounter many different emotional liminal pauses during our lives, such as moving, the death of a loved one, illness, job changes, financial changes, etc. Some are longer and harder than others but by definition, liminality has a beginning and an end point.

Liminality can also be an in-between state of mind such as when you are half asleep, half awake, in meditation, lost in thought, engrossed in a story, or when waiting for someone to arrive or a new adventure to begin.

Metaphorically, a liminal space exists any time you vacillate between two ideas. A trapeze makes an excellent metaphor for this. Once you jump off the platform, you swing through the air, waiting to transition from where you came from to where you are going. 

There are many ways artists use liminal space to create their work.

Look at these Edward Hopper paintings and notice how he employs liminal space to create a feeling of isolation. The gas station is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The anonymous spaces of the automat and the movie theater are at once familiar and unfamiliar. You are never quite sure where you are in a Hopper painting, it looks like somewhere you know, and yet it has a dreamlike quality.

Surrealists Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali use recognizable touchstones and landmarks in a space usually devoid of humans. Rene Magritte is another artist whose subliminal spaces feel dreamlike as their features are recognizable to the conscious mind but not quite understood by it.

Surrealists Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali use recognizable touchstones and landmarks in a space usually devoid of humans. Rene Magritte is another artist whose subliminal spaces feel dreamlike as their features are recognizable to the conscious mind but not quite understood by it.

Hanging out in a liminal space is one of the greatest pleasures of creating abstract art. Creating art this way reverses the creative process by engaging the subconscious mind first and employing the problem-solving, conscious brain at the end.

Nonrepresentational abstract art starts with a white space where all possibilities are present and nothing is planned. The artist begins making marks and then stopping for extended periods of looking to see what wants to come forth on the canvas.

The canvas or paper becomes a transitional/liminal space where nothing exists for a long period of time until the series of marks, swipes, and splashes eventually resolve into a painting. 

This process is the antithesis of planning and preparing and that is what makes it so rewarding. The artist must fully engage both sides of the brain. The loose experimental creative side begins the dance and the controlling, organizing side responds. It feels risky, dangerous, and playful all at the same time.

The creation of anything new begins with the disruption of the existing order.  The known self you recreate from your daily habits and routines has to disappear for a new transformation to appear.

I used the month of June to create a liminal space of rest and healing for myself. My active creative self paused the busy-ness and spent the month in introspection, sleep, reading, watching romance movies, and collecting mangoes… I’ll be back out in the world in July, visiting Washington, DC, for a Joe Dispenza transformational retreat and bringing my newest paintings to the Old Sculpin Gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. If you plan to be in either place in July please reach out and let’s get together for coffee and a gallery tour.

Whether you’re an established artist seeking new horizons or a budding creative looking to elevate your work I hope I have given you some doorways you can use to access your expanded artistic potential. Should you find yourself in a liminal space consider the importance of appreciating the present moment in relation to where you have been and where you are going. If you would like my mentorship, guidance, and advice in exploring your own artistic path please reach out to me. It makes me happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

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 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight



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