The Power of Curiosity & Inquiry in Abstract Art

And did you get what
 you wanted from this life, even so?
 I did.
 And what did you want?
 To call myself beloved, to feel myself
 beloved on the earth.
 ~Raymond Carver (1938–1988), Late Fragment

I love this commencement address by Dean James Ryan of Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this talk he explores the potency of asking questions in general and five essential questions to ask oneself in particular.

  • Wait, what?
  • I wonder if/why?
  • Couldn’t we at least?
  • How can I help?
  • What truly matters?

There’s a bonus question at the end referenced from the late poet Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment asking one penetrating question:

And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?

This question was carved on Carver’s tombstone. His answer was to feel beloved.

Dean Ryan says that students perform better when they feel beloved and I believe that’s true. I remember a public radio interview of Yo Yo Ma where he was asked who had been his most influential cello teacher. He answered decisively that it was his first teacher when he was four years old. He said the reason she was the most important is because he felt her love.

I believe these questions and the importance of feeling beloved has great relevance for artists.

As we create abstract art we’re continually searching and finding our way as we paint. Indeed, as we create we step into the mysterium and cultivate an attitude of not knowing.

We can feel vulnerable, scared and intimidated as we face the blank canvas or worse, the middle of the painting. We start wondering what to do next? We begin to doubt, second guess and over think the work. We ask ourselves: is this any good? Isn’t there a formula that will give me answers and help me resolve this?

Yet deep down we know that being an artist is about exploring the unknown.

It’s about living the questions as the poet Rilke wrote:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

In the end we know that being an artist and creating abstract art is about being willing to continually ask questions, indeed, to live the questions. It’s about allowing ourselves to not know what we’re doing and where we’re going.

And why is this true?

Because this is where the magic happens. This is where we surprise ourselves with our creations.

When we explore and experiment in our studio, when we ask ourselves what if?…we engage the creative spirit. We journey into the terra incognito of our psyche and discover invisible expressions living inside of us waiting to be made visible.

By cultivating curiosity and inquiry, we activate the inner artist that revels in playfulness and wonder.

P.S. Please comment below and share with friends. If you’d like to go deeper with me, check out The Artist’s Journey: 3 Secrets Of The Masters online course here. Our next class will begin July 5.

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Originally published at Nancy Hillis.